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How California can save water and beat the drought: psychology

California officials trying to encourage people to conserve water during the state's historic drought might do well to consider the psychology of misbehaving teens. The key? Peer pressure.

"People will cooperate if they think everyone else is cooperating," said Paul Ferraro, a behavioral economist who studied an Atlanta water district that achieved a quick 5 percent reduction in usage by informing residential users how they compared with their neighbors in terms of conservation. But if the perception is that you're the only one sacrificing, "you feel like a sucker because no one else is," he noted.

That's certainly part of the problem in drought-parched California, said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC.)

"They don't think their neighbors are doing enough," she said.

A survey released in March by the PPIC found that 66 percent of Californians said other people in their part of the state aren't doing enough about the drought. A separate recent study by the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, found that 51 percent of Californians said a major reason they hadn't taken more water conservation actions was because they have already "significantly reduced" their water usage.

Loafing on the job

The tendency for people to waste water because they perceive that everyone else is wasting water may be a function of what in the fields of social psychology and behavioral economics is commonly termed "normative social influence," said Elisha Frederiks, a research scientist who studies these topics at CSIRO, Australia's national science agency. "In many situations, people tend to follow the behavior of other people and conform to 'social norms,' and that includes common or 'normal' behaviour in a particular context," she said in an email.

Another mode of behavior that can emerge in groups may also help explain the common reluctance to save water.

"Social loafing is a different psychological phenomenon -- it describes the tendency of people to exert less effort toward completing a task or achieving a goal when they're working collectively as part of a group/team than when they're working alone," she added. "For example, if a group (e.g., neighborhood or community) is working towards the goal of water conservation, then there may be some members of that neighborhood/community who don't 'do their bit' (i.e., they 'loaf'), so to speak."

Social loafing was first studied in 1913 by French agricultural engineer Maximilien Ringelmann, who found that when a group of people collectively pulled on a rope, each person's effort was less than when an individual pulled on the rope alone.

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Frederiks recently co-authored a journal article on household energy use for Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews that outlined common patterns explaining why people find it so hard to conserve. Many of the phenomena are applicable to other behaviors, such as water conservation, she said.

"When choosing what products to buy or what services to use, people often think they are making smart decisions and behaving in ways that are highly rational and congruent with their values and intentions. However, daily life illustrates that this is often not the case," her article states.

One important factor that keeps people from saving resources is that they are prone to inertia, often preferring the status quo. They also are inclined to exert just enough effort to produce outcomes that are "good enough," rather than as good as possible. And economists have long known that people want to protect their sunk costs -- such as expensive, water-guzzling lawns and pools in California -- even when it appears to others that they're throwing good money after bad, not to mention squandering scarce resources.

Finding the right words

In 2007, Ferraro's team took some of these all too human inclinations into account in carefully crafting the language in letters sent to 100,000 households in greater Atlanta encouraging them to save water during that year's drought.

"The action we took was a light touch -- it was a single letter," said Ferraro, a professor at Georgia State University. It contained the routine request to conserve water during the drought and explained the optimal way to water lawns. The letter noted precisely how much water customers used the previous summer, and -- underlining the negative -- showed how they compared with others in terms of conservation.

The result? Water use immediately fell 5 percent. Seven years later, residents who had received a letter were still using 1.5 percent to 2 percent less water. Notably, the willingness to conserve seemed to grow across class and even ideological lines, improving regardless of people's property value or political affiliation -- all user groups cut back, Ferraro said.

"The biggest wasters cut back the most," he said.

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An important feature of the Atlanta experiment was that customers' water usage records were kept private. By contrast, there have many high-profile cases where public shaming has come into play, such as calling out people with unusually large, green lawns or the highest water bills.

"That a dangerous thing to do, because today it's a very emotional issue," Ferraro said. "It would be terrible for someone to shoot their neighbor over water usage."

Media focus on the wasters might also hurt, he said, if it makes people think that most people are wasting water.

"People are guided by what they think is the right behavior," Ferraro said. "Social norms matter."

Don't be an orange worried face

In California, a San Francisco-based company, WaterSmart Software, is helping some water utilities use so-called social-norm marketing to persuade customers to conserve. An independent study of a randomly selected group of customers who were sent the WaterSmart materials in the East Bay Municipal Utility District found residences cut back 4.6 percent.

Over a year, those customers in the test group got rankings with their water bills indicating whether they were in the top group (indicated by a green smiley water-drop emoticon,) average (with a yellow neutral smile,) or bottom, (with an orange worried face.)

"Our analysis indicates that households receiving a water score of 3 (Take Action!) are in fact more likely to do just that," according to the study prepared by the M. Cubed policy analysis group.


Another water conservation tactic that has enjoyed some success in California involves selective use of "increasing block rate" (IBR) -- a tiered penalty that charges higher prices for additional water only when total consumption exceeds a household's "efficient" level of use for a billing cycle.

Over a three-year period, demand dropped 18 percent in areas where the approach was used, according to a 2013 study headed by Kenneth Baerenklau, a professor of environmental economics and policy at the University of California at Riverside. That study looked at usage by 13,000 single-family homes in the Eastern Municipal Water District of Southern California.

"These results suggest that IBR water budgets are potentially a highly effective conservation tool, although a substantial amount of time is required for demand reductions to be realized," the report states.

A slow awakening

Part of the problem for California in coping with its four-year drought is that even if there was one clear solution, there isn't one clear authority to implement it. The state has more than 400 large utilities that provide services to 90 percent of the state. The other 10 percent rely on literally thousands of smaller utilities, according to the PPIC Water Policy Center. And while the large utilities are able to spread investment costs over a large user base, the small, geographically isolated ones usually not only have limited resources, but also have been among the hardest hit during the drought.

Meanwhile, many Californians have been slow to respond even as the drought deepened into a full-fledged environmental and economic crisis. In mid-2014, for example, Gov. Jerry Brown called for a 20 percent reduction of water use. Yet voluntary statewide conservation efforts have only reached 9 percent overall, according to the State Water Resources Control Board. To be fair, the state's per capita daily water use had declined to 178 gallons by 2010, from 232 gallons in 1995. But that's still not enough to keep up since the state's population has grown and the current drought cycle includes the driest three-year stretch on record.

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Earlier this month, the water board enacted rules to comply with Brown's April executive order to reduce water usage by 25 percent. Much of the implementation and enforcement will be left to the individual water districts.

The effectiveness of that mandate is, as other water conversation efforts highlight, likely to turn on Californians' psychological and emotional response to the order.

One lesson to note is the "rigidity penalty" that Nevada's Truckee Meadows Water Authority discovered when it assigned residents specific days of the week they could legally water their landscaping. Water use actually went up, as much as 25 percent on a weekly basis, as residents would water on their assigned days even when it was windy and the water just blew away.

Whatever California's utilities end up trying, Ferraro said he hopes the agencies closely study the results, rather than just guess, as more droughts are forecast.

"They should be experimenting now and see what works in what conditions," he said. "Let's try out different things so that we can learn their effectiveness."