Spreading pro-social behavior, one smiley face at a time

Professor Marcela Jaime Torres grew up in Colombia but was drawn to Chile by a prestigious Master's program in environmental and natural resource economics offered by the University of Concepción. This paved the way to her doctoral studies through Gothenburg University, Sweden, where she became interested in how to harness the power of ‘green nudging’ to drive more environmentally responsible behavior, such as encouraging water- and energy-wise habits. Now she is expanding this work to see how it can help tackle the problem of single-use plastics. 

Each winter, the air in many cities in central and southern Chile becomes thick with pollution, as people fire up wood-burning stoves to heat their homes. The concentration of soot and ash in the air can become so dense that it regularly exceeds what the World Health Organization (WHO) regards as ‘healthy’. When the pollution is at its worst, a city will declare an ‘emergency’, limiting outdoor exercise and instructing school children to stay indoors.

In 2011, the Chilean government began a stove replacement program in order to address the health hazards associated with this form of air pollution: if a household handed their stove into the government and paid a small amount of money towards an upgrade, they’d receive a subsidized home heating system made with better technology, one which burns kerosene or pellets and produces less pollution.

How much does this campaign affect people’s energy use and comfort at home, and how do they use the new equipment after replacing the old stoves? 

These are some of the questions which Marcela Jaime Torres and a team of environmental economists hope to answer. Jaime is an associate professor at the School of Management and Business (Escuela de Administración y Negocios (EAN)) at the University of Concepción in Chile and is the center director for the Chilean branch of the EfD network. The team she is working with on this project is headed up by principal investigator Prof Carlos Chávez at the University of Talca in Chile, with support from doctoral student Adolfo Uribe (University of Talca, Chile), Walter Gómez (Universidad de la Frontera, Chile), and Randall Bluffstone (Portland State University, USA). 

"We are implementing a partnership program with the local offices of the Chilean government's Ministry of Environment, where we will evaluate what the effect of this stove replacement is on people’s behavior relating to energy use, and what the implications for energy poverty are," she says. 

"We want to find out how people operate their equipment and whether they are able to reach the comfort levels they need to in their homes."

These stoves should be able to raise the temperature inside a home to about 19°C or 20°C.

"We want to see what behavioral factors are at play, and how people adapt in terms of their preferences relating to the use of this new stove equipment. The objective is to understand how people respond to monetary incentives to adopt new and more sustainable energy options."

This research has suddenly become more significant, with the health impacts of poor air quality now a global concern with the outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020. Early studies suggest that people living in areas with higher levels of air pollution are more likely to contract severe or fatal Covid-19, the respiratory and vascular illness caused by the virus.

Jaime joined the EfD’s Chilean center — the Research Nucleus on Environmental and Natural Resource Economics (NENRE) — in 2015 when she returned to South America after completing her doctoral studies in environmental economics through the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Focus on behavioral aspects

Today, her research interests overlap with many of her colleagues across the EfD network, although she contextualizes these to the local conditions in South America. The wood-burning stove research gives a local window on EfD’s overarching theme of energy transitions in the Global South, under the umbrella of the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative (SETI).

She is also interested in the behavior of small-scale producers in the agriculture and aquaculture sectors in Chile. She has considered the impact of climatic events on crop allocation, and the interaction between technology adoption and agriculture insurance. More recently, she has looked at how the introduction of an environmental education program for school children can change behavior relating to single-use plastics, as part of EfD’s Sustainable Management of Coastal Marine Resources (CMaR) network-wide collaboration.

Much of her work has focused on behavioral aspects of natural resource management, particularly relating to water and energy conservation, where she has considered how green nudging methods can influence energy- and water-wise behavior.

Supports women in Environmental Economics

Jaime became NENRE director in August 2019.

"From my perspective as a researcher, I’d like to move forward in terms of the behavioral aspect of economics studies in a number of domains. I want to find solutions to local environmental problems, in a way that can have high policy impacts."

Jaime is also excited about the opportunity to support the development of other female and early-career researchers through her work at the EfD-Chile center, to extend the support to others in the way that EfD has supported her throughout her academic career.

This includes being part of the EfD Women in Environmental Economics for Development network, which is geared towards women economists in the global South whose work has an environment and development focus.

Case study 1: A smiley face in the utility bill encourages water-wise behavior 

The town of Jericó is tucked away in the rolling tree-covered hills in south-western Antioquia, Colombia, and it was ideal for Associate Prof Marcela Jaime Torres to test whether ‘green nudging’ methods could encourage the people living there to use water more sparingly.

The Jericó water utility had not increased the price of water in over two decades. Most of the town’s residents are low- to middle-income households, and while the cost of their water is subsidized, their monthly water bill still makes up a noticeable amount of their household budget. Yet, in spite of this economic incentive to save, people still don’t use water sparingly.

"Many people have fallen into bad habits, such as washing clothes too often, or taking long and frequent showers," explains Jaime.

"This results in overconsumption of water."

The same applies to household electricity use.

Jaime began working with the municipality, whose water utility office had 2 558 registered residential accounts on record, to run a year-long experiment using behavioral nudging methods to see if this could drive down water use.

First, Jaime randomly selected 656 households out of these account holders to receive a social norms information campaign (what the researchers call an experimental ‘treatment’). Over the course of a year, the utility sent a leaflet with the monthly water utility bill, designed by the research team, which used a simple message to tell the family what their water use was, compared with other similar households. If their water use was higher than the average and had ‘room to improve’, the flier had a frowning face printed on it. If their water use was the same as the average, the flier had a neutral face. If it was lower than the average, meaning their water use was ‘excellent’, the flier had a smiling face. 

This was accompanied by educational material on the environmental implications of water use behavior.

The researchers then tracked these households’ water use, throughout the year. At the same time, the team also followed the behavior of another 656 households who did not receive the fliers or educational material relating to the campaign in their monthly bills. Comparing this ‘control group’ with the group that received the educational material allowed them to compare water use between households and see if the intervention was effective in changing behavior. 

They did the same observation with another sample of 500 households in a nearby town, tracking water use behavior while also not sending the educational information and ‘nudging’ treatment in the utility bills. This proved important to monitor the behavior of the control group in Jericó.

While the team kept an eye on consumption patterns relating to water, they also followed the electricity used by these families throughout the year.

When they poured over the data, the findings were clear and instructive: the targeted households cut their water use by 6.8 percent. But there was an important spillover effect, too: those Jericó households that did not receive the intervention also cut their water use, by almost as much as the targeted households, some 5.8 percent. This was measured by comparing the control group’s behavior with those of the 500 households in the nearby town, which also did not receive any nudging treatment or educational information.

This, according to Jaime, is likely because of the effect of word-of-mouth information sharing between households within Jericó.

Jericó is a small town, and people would be likely to encounter one another while they queued to pay their utility bills. In all likelihood, word of the need for water-wise behavior spread amongst the community, and other people, not targeted with the ‘nudging treatment’, adopted the same behavior.

Another important finding was that wealthier households and high-water users in the targeted households reduced their water use more than the poorer households and low users, explains Jaime.

This is a significant finding from a policy perspective because the town’s tiered block tariff pricing system is designed to charge higher water users a premium, in order to cross-subsidize water delivery to poorer households. The success of this experiment confirmed that with the right kind of targeted educational information and social norms comparisons (in the form of water consumption comparisons), water utility managers could drive down wasteful water use without implementing a pricing system that would penalize cash-strapped families.

The team noticed another important spillover effect, this time relating to electricity use in the same homes. During the experiment, as researchers rolled out the social information campaign on water use, they also tracked the households’ electricity consumption patterns. In those homes where people were already careful with their water use before the intervention, not only did they reduce their water use, but they also cut back on their electricity use, by almost 9 percent.

"Those families who were already aware of the need to be water-wise, then transferred this behavior into their electricity use," says Jaime.


Case study 2: Tackling single-use plastics through childhood learning

Children in Chile cleaning a beach
The school children in the project clean up Caleta Tumbes Beach in Chile

Tumbes is a quaint fishing town on a peninsula that hooks out of the edge of the Chilean coastline, about 500km south of the capital Santiago. A small flotilla of wooden fishing boats usually bobs just beyond the tideline, with a few occasionally hauled up onto the thin seam of the beach where they list sideways on the sand.

This is one of the beaches that Associate Prof Marcela Jaime Torres, Assistant Prof César Salazar from the University of Bio-Bio, and a team of fellow researchers took a group of school children in 2019. The objective was to spend a morning picking up plastic litter on the beach, as part of an experiment to see how an educational intervention with value-laden content in the school curriculum of younger children could shift behavior relating to single-use plastics by children and their parents.

The EfD network is taking the issue of ocean plastic pollution seriously, with several centers working together through the Sustainable Management of Coastal Marine Resources (CMaR) collaboration to see how behavioral economics tools can address this growing global crisis. EfD-Chile’s contribution to this broader body of investigation is to test how green nudging methods, using an approach that appeals to personal norms, can influence people’s relationship with single-use plastics by targeting children, and ultimately their parents.

"Economic theory suggests that people’s behavior relating to environmentally-friendly activities such as recycling is motivated by an individual’s own value system, rather than by someone else’s externally-imposed values,’"says Jaime.

"We wanted to see how environmental education for school children can foster the emergence of personal norms relating to more responsible plastics use."

The EfD team drew on an educational program designed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States and adapted it for a Chilean context targeting fourth-grade children. They then partnered with the regional office of the Chilean Ministry of Environment, which already has a sustainable school program, to run ten two-hour educational classes.

Each class tackled some aspect of the problem of plastics pollution, and then had a homework activity which the children had to do with their parents, such as engage in a craft activity, or take a pledge to act in an environmentally responsible way. The idea was to expose the parents to the educational material through their children.

Jaime and her team did this work with 15 different schools and then monitored their behavior to see if there was a change in their knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding the consumption and disposal of plastics. The researchers compared these outcomes with those of another 15 schools where they did not run the educational intervention.

The beach clean-up at Caleta Tumbes, in the Bio-Bio Region of Chile, was part of this educational program offered to the participating schools. Those schools that were close enough to a beach were able to spend two hours picking up plastic bottles and other pieces of litter. Those schools that were further inland did a litter clean-up somewhere in their town.

Jaime, Salazar, and the team completed the teaching program by early 2020 and are busy analyzing their data. If it shows positive results, the EfD-Chile team hopes to work with its partners in the Ministry of Environment to roll the curriculum out more widely across the country. 

The next step is to build on this work, and extend it to the area of residential waste management, to see how similar behavioral nudges could influence household use of plastics, through recycling and otherwise reducing plastics waste.

Story | 11 March 2021