Public praise for water-wise behaviour: a lesson for city managers

A team of behavioural economists has an important message for City of Cape Town’s water managers, who are currently implementing tight water restrictions after three years of drought in the region: if the city publicly praises individuals and households for their water saving efforts, this will get people to voluntarily contribute to even greater water-wise behaviour.

This kind of ‘positive’ messaging can have a greater impact on water use than notifying households of the cost implications of their water use. This is particularly true in wealthier households, where people don’t feel price increases of water as noticeably.

These are the findings in a new Water Research Commission-funded study, which looks at whether behavioural ‘nudges’ are effective in contributing to changing behaviour around water use.

These results have wider implications that just for the water sector, researchers say, and can be used by city utility managers to drive other behaviours relating to waste reduction, recycling, and cutting on energy use.

‘Behavioural nudging uses simple interventions that are geared towards encouraging people to make better decisions in a context such as this, for instance when a city like Cape Town needs to alleviate its water crisis,’ explains Prof Martine Visser, a behavioural economist from the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU). Visser and colleague Dr Kerri Brick conducted the research with the supported of Samantha DeMartino from Sussex University, and Jorge Garcia from Cicero in Norway.

‘Last summer, over a period of six months, we sent out a series of nine differently framed messages to over 400 000 randomly selected households across the municipality here,’ Visser explains.

The messages, sent with people’s monthly utility bills, were framed in different ways: some had a financial thread to them, notifying people about how much money they would save through cutting their water use, or how much it would cost them if they didn’t. Some messages offered water-wise tips. Other messages compared people’s consumption to that of their neighbours’. Others tapped into intrinsic values and rallied people together under a ‘common good’ value system by appealing to people to save water for everyone’s benefit.

The message that consistently produced the greatest water reduction behaviour, was the one which advised people that the names of the top water savers would be published on the city’s website. For this specific intervention, people responded by reducing their water use by nearly 2 percent.

Prof Martine Visser and Dr Kerri Brick are behavioural economists at the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Policy Research Unit. Martine Visser is also a research chair of the African Climate Development Initiative at UCT. Behavioural economics brings together traditional economic theory with psychology principles in order to understand what drives human decision-making.

Story | 18 April 2017