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Encouraging Water Conservation and Human Behaviour

Image from Berkeley Water FilterWater conservation consists of activities and policies that are designed to manage a necessary and natural resource in a manner that meets human needs. It is a challenge that crosses multiple disciplines, including environmental science and climatology, geography and demographics, engineering, behavioural and resource economics, and social psychology. For the purposes of this inquiry, an emphasis is placed on social learning biases and the mechanisms of cooperation to design a feasible intervention from the perspective of the Auckland Council. Other disciplines will be allocated emphasis according to their approriateness to this central task. For example, as fascinating as various engineering contributions to water conservation might be, they are largely mentioned in this context in reference to human behaviour.

The structure of this inquiry consists of three main parts. The first is a literature review with an emphasis on existing research into water conservation behaviours. The second part is a discussion of the multiplicity of social learning biases and cooperation mechanisms, their relevance, and potential application to this intervention. The third section offers feasible solutions that can be employed to promote water conservation that integrates content from both the literature review and discussion. Concluding remarks will both summarise the content, but also offer possibilities for further research on how to integrate matters of human behaviour with those more distal disciplinary solutions that have only been mentioned in passing.

Literature Review of Water Conservation

Successful behavioural change in households is predicated on awareness and measurement, for example in the detection of leaks (Grisham, Fleming, 1989). This assumes a coupling with price and non-price signals; without such signals "awareness and measurement" can very quickly become a "tragedy of the commons", where a natural necessity and commodity in relatively fixed supply is rapidly depleted (Hardin, 1968) where the resource access is unregulated (Hardin, 1994), and prone to free-rider exploitation when others attempt to act responsibly. Water is a particularly pertinent example where increased population puts pressure on the available resource.

Price and non-price signals have both theoretical models and empirical evidence (Corral, Fisher, Hatch, 1999) that staggered pricing (a higher pricing per unit above a threshold) is effective at reducing residential water consumption, especially in drought or dry seasons. Also noted as particularly effective are use restrictions and landscaping audits (see also: Hurd, 2006) with consumer education, billing information, and plumbing (retro-fit) programs all cited as non-price incentives. The importance of price information in billing has been reconfirmed almost two decades later with the further illumination that automatic billing reduces water conservation efforts as part of consumer inattentiveness to prices, with normative appeals of utilisation compared with peer groups requiring multiple mailers (Lott, 2017).

Voluntary non-price mechanisms, such as user education, are especially interesting as they represent an organic shared cultural perspective that has not been crystalised into a legal or economic requirement. Whilst some studies have associated this perspective as an indirect example of environmental mindfulness contrasted with a "water utilitarian" (i.e., consumer) worldview (Pereira et al, 2022), others (e.g., Bollinger et al, 2018) note that endogenous peer effects are reduced if such information is not combined with price signals. A large-scale study of more than one hundred thousand households notes that households which are not price-sensitive, typically those with high disposable income, social comparison methods have the greatest effect (Ferraro and Price, 2013). Further, peer effects coupled and compared with price mechanisms have been simulated with social influencer model with a multi-step influence-diffusion mechanism. The simulation was been validated with medium-scale education and information policies having a similar effect as price signals (Athanasiadis and Mitkas, 2005).

Social Learning Discussion

The background research in the literature review indicates relative rates of conservation effectiveness of various residential policies for water conservation. These can be considered in the light of mechanism for human co-operation and social learning biases. If one defines culture in the broad sense of the "information capable of affecting individuals' behavior that they acquire from other members of their species" (Richerson and Boyd, 1985, p.5), then one can include all the social and external influences on our internal world, including institutions and their procedures which can provide detailed information that can be calculated in water conservation awareness (e.g., usage information) and the integration with other system procedures (e.g., billing).

Given the definition of culture, it logically follows that there is social learning from observation. Social learning is defined as "learning that is influenced by observation of, or interaction with, another animal (typically a conspecific) or its products" (Heyes, 1994, p207). Following the cognitive mechanisms for social learning with increased difficulty (facilitation, local/stimulus enhancement, emulation, imitation), one can note biases in acquiring and applying social learning and different mechanisms to encourage cooperation. The biases include "prestige-biased" social learning, where behaviours are copied from leaders (Brand et al, 2021) and conformist-biased social learning (Eriksson, and Coultas, 2012), whereby behaviour is copied to reinforce group membership and norms.

These biases representive a selective choice for efficiency when more direct means (i.e., detailed and critical evaluation of social learning information) is not available or costly (Henrich and Gil-White, 2001). Albeit with the advantage of time, there are obviously disadvantages of prestige and conformity biases in social learning; both leaders and groups can suggest behaviours that are damaging to individuals and even populations However, in the context of water conservation the literature review illustrates examples where prestige biases can develop into a group expectations, such as the initiation and increasing prevalence of low-water consumption landscapes and water-saving household technologies.

An elaboration from social learning and its biases is the mechanisms of cooperative behaviour. This is a sociobiological feature of the species that is expressed through social preferences and where behaviour economics can stand in contrast to many of the idealised axioms of individualised rational choice or assumptions of genetic selfishness (Bowles and Gintis, 2013). Cooperative behaviour mechnisms are actions which are mutually beneficial or altruistic and include the following: Kin Selection, where members of a group are treated as part of a family, and which can be expanded to the entire Cultural Group, Reciprocity, where a principle of equal treatment is applied (and with indirect recipority through public networks), Risk Pooling where the effects of catastrophic risks are shared among members for mutual insurance or through centralised distribution, Relational Mobility achieved by reputation preference, and Punishment, where cooperation is fostered through the possibility of sanction.

It is evident how cooperation mechanisms are applied with regard to water conservation and sometimes with multiple mechanisms applied simultaneously. An expanded Cultural Group is defined in a cultural area (Auckland Council), where the resource is collected as a managed commons where a Risk Pooling approach can be used for distribution, via Watercare. Reciprocity is applied in equal rules for usage and with applying non-discriminatory price signals. Punishment can be applied when water restrictions are enforced. As a whole, leveraging the principles of social learning biases and cooperation mechanisms brings the inquiry for a feasible intervention.

Proposed Interventions

The inclusion of such activities as "culture" is a reminder that institutions and their procedures - "the system" - can be distinguished from a "lifeworld" for the generation of meaning, and that the two combined represent our social and cultural experience (Habermas, 1975, pp1-8). However, it must be emphasized that whilst such a detailed and procedural system clearly confers many advantages and is appropriate for technologically advanced economies with extensive institutions, it is also considered "WEIRD" (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), a relative outlier for in the world's population and history, and yet the dominant population of most psychological studies (Henrich et al, 2010).

With the primacy of normative commitments and cultural messaging in mind, a feasible intervention for the context of Auckland should start with a position of appropriate cultural messages of water conservation, especially with Maori and Pasifika communities in mind, that make particular use of prestige and group social biases. Of course, this is part of a wider sense of prestige demographics, whereby scientific, political, and business leaders can all be leveraged for the same message with variable content. Evidence from the literature review suggests that such messaging must also be ongoing to be effective. This correlates with expectations of the cooperative mechanisms of Kin Selection and Cultural Groups; the meaning of shared membership must be reinforced even when systemically enforced through legal notions of nationality or council membership.

With targeted messaging providing an initial non-price signal, the use of price signals has also been shown to be effective in the literature, matching cooperation mechanisms of Reciprocity (application of the same rules) and, to a degree, Punishment (if one wastes water, one must pay for it). Two other considerations come in mind here; firstly there is the notion of equity, included in the Auckland Council strategy, which represents Risk Pooling; everyone deserves access to some of the water in the pool. One message that can be applied across the board is targetted household levels (e.g., litres used per day) by which social comparisons can be made and an internal competition for is generated as a cooperative mechanism.

Further, there is recognition in the literature that those who are price insensitive (i.e., they have sufficient income to afford water costs with minimal consideration) are less influenced by conservation via pricing. This means that pricing, as a signal, follows a sigmoid function; initial per unit pricing is low, for equity, subsequent per unit pricing is higher, for conservation, but its effectiveness as a signal is reduced as disposable income increases. For higher income earners the literature suggests a return to non-pricing signals as being more influential.

In thess cases, the phemomenon of status goods and conspicuous consumption (Mason, 2000) can be redirected and levered here for the practical effect of water conservation, such as various subsidies and requirements for more water efficient properties (e.g., such as contemporary shower-heads, dual-flush latrines, use of recycled and grey-water, etc), converting expenditure in a virtue with additional cooperation reinforcement of selective group membership, reputation, etc.

Further Research and Summary

The limitations of the scenario provide opportunities for further research, of which three seem particularly important. Firstly. as this study was concerned with how people conserve water a future inquiry can apply similar insights to water conservation by organisations, in particular agriculture which is typically a large user. It is well recognised that whilst people have agency, personalities changed when embodied in organisations and become biased toward organisational goals, rather than their own norms (Tasselli et at, 2018). This suggests that social learning, especially through institutional governance, corporate reputation, etc could also be introduced. Secondly much of the literature review was sourced from various jurisdictions and the insights of the inquiry could apply according to demographics, economic development, and technology. Finally, the inquiry was limited to the matter of conservation, which is demand management. Whilst water as a whole is a natural good, the supply of water prepared for consumption is subject to variable supply; from building-level contributions in plumbing and rain-water collection to massive projects such as desalination plants a path to ensuring the availability of water for humans is to increase the supply thus reducing the reliance on conservation alone.


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