Science & Technology

How neighbors can nudge you to skip the sprinkler

Friends and neighbors can influence decisions about watering your lawn, new research shows.

Water scarcity is a national and global issue. Domestic water demand grew more than 600% from 1960 to 2014. About 75% of US residential water is used outdoors, with more than half of it going to landscape irrigation.

So, it’s crucial to conserve water, especially in residential irrigation. The findings of the new study in the journal Urban Forestry and Urban Greening reveal how what others do and what others expect of us influence our actions.

In other words, we take our lead from people beyond our significant other and our friends—even with issues such as irrigation. Laura Warner, an associate professor of agricultural education and communication at the University of Florida, believes the new data can help people lower their water use.

Warner conducted a national online survey of 2,601 adults. She asked them questions about how they water their yards and whether they think different groups of people are engaged in conservation. She also measured people’s perceptions about how others expect them to act when using water.

“There is an opportunity to make water conservation more visible through conversations, with influential groups sharing conservation practices with those they influence,” Warner says. “To influence others, people who care about saving water need to explicitly share what they personally do to save water.”

On the other hand, the less you think your neighbors conserve, the more likely you are to conserve water. Instead of aligning with neighbors’ actions, it seems people conserve to make up for a perceived lack of conservation in their neighborhood, or don’t conserve because they think their neighbors are conserving enough for everyone.

More research is needed to examine this interesting relationship, Warner says.

In the new study, Warner uses terms like “referent groups,” who are people who may influence you.

“Let’s say I have the choice of going for a run in the evening or sitting around watching TV,” she says. “My husband is among my important others, and his actions influence my decisions to a great extent, but I may still be influenced by what the referent group, made up of my neighbors, does. In other words, if my husband goes for a run, I’m very likely to do so, but if I see a bunch of neighbors running by, I’m even more likely to go out and get some exercise.”

In her example, Warner says people she knows may do everything they can to save water, and they may expect her to save water, too.

“The bottom line is that conservation among people across the United States is more aligned with what they think others do versus what others expect,” Warner says. “Applied to my previous example, if my husband goes for a run, I’m more likely to do so myself than if I simply believe he wants me to go running.”

By the same token, if a person thinks most people are conserving water through good irrigation practices Warner says she’s more likely to do so.

“This is important because irrigation conservation is a somewhat invisible behavior,” she says. “I might mistakenly think most people don’t conserve because I don’t notice that a household’s sprinklers haven’t turned on or I may not see they have water-conserving irrigation technologies installed. In that case, I’m less likely to do so myself.”

Source: University of Florida

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