IIM Bangalore scholars find a way to influence household water conservation

IIM Bangalore scholars find a way to influence household water conservation

Researchers from the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB) conducted a multi-year study, amongst the first anywhere in the world, that used behavioural interventions alone to influence household water conservation that persists over the long term.  The research was conducted by Vivek, a recent PhD graduate, Deepak Malghan, Associate Professor of Public Policy, and Kanchan Mukherjee, Professor of Organizational Behaviour, and published earlier this month in the prestigious journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).

Achieving persistence in conservation behaviour has been a central, but elusive goal in behavioural research. The authors report a field experiment that implemented a habit change intervention in a residential community in Bengaluru. “Humans are creatures of habit. When people act in a particular way repeatedly, such as taking a shower every day, they do it in an automatic mode without much conscious thought. That is why attempts to persuade people to conserve water by appealing to their better senses have had limited success. People may get influenced by these messages temporarily, but the force of habit eventually takes over and behaviour change is short-lived,” said Kanchan Mukherjee.

This experiment implemented a framework for habit change, where automatic, unconscious behaviour, like taking a shower or brushing one’s teeth while leaving the tap on, were first brought into one’s conscious awareness through appropriate messaging. This, coupled with water-saving tips, helped consumers cut back on wastage of a crucial resource. The intervention, which lasted for only five weeks, yielded 15-25% reduction in household water consumption. More importantly, the effect lasted for the entire observation period of two years after the intervention was stopped, establishing the potential of using behavioural methods to achieve significant long-term reduction in water consumption.

The messaging consisted of three incremental parts – A. daily water usage information for each family; B. a water usage goal (i.e., a per-person limit) and feedback on usage vis-à-vis goal; and C. easy water saving tips using images. The households were randomly divided into three test groups and a control group. The three test groups received one of only part A, parts A and B or all three parts of the information. The households that received all three parts (Group 3) conserved most water compared to the control group and persisted at the reduced level of water usage for the entire observation-period. As expected, the other two treated groups responded less favourably, and their smaller initial response vanished over time. The results suggest that Group 3 households changed their habits through goal-based motivation to change, made easier by the water saving tips.

The results are very promising for demand management using behaviour change techniques. Such interventions can be a powerful tool to address growing freshwater scarcity in cities. “These findings also expand the scope of behavioural interventions to numerous other settings, such as in the larger environment and resource sectors, without the political and social difficulties associated with price-based policies,” said Deepak Malghan.

The paper can be found at https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2023014118.

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