Do you know how much water your household used last month?
Many people are aware that water is a critical and limited resource, but if you don’t know how much water you use, how much you should use, or which activities consume significant quantities of water, it’s incredibly difficult to take any actionable steps to use less.
That’s one thing we learned in our work exploring behavioral approaches to encourage water conservation in Belén, Costa Rica. It was also clear from the beginning that simply raising awareness of the need to conserve water—Belén has a growing population that, if current trends continue, will be faced with chronic scarcity of water by 2030—wouldn’t be enough to change behavior.
Instead, we crafted and tested descriptive social norms, in which an individual’s behavior is compared to that of a larger group. The norms messaging included adding a simple sticker to a household’s water bill comparing their water use to that of their neighbors—a happy face if they used less, a sad face if they used more. And with a postcard, we invited residents to compare their water use to average monthly consumption in the community and offered goal-setting steps for reducing their water use.
Both the neighborhood comparison stickers and the goal-setting postcards, at a very low cost, prompted people to conserve water—something that many people expressed during preliminary interviews that they didn’t think they could do. We learned also that comparing a household’s consumption to neighbors’ use was more effective than comparing it to the average usage across the entire town, suggesting that Belén residents were more inclined to compare their behavior with that of immediate neighbors, as opposed to the overall community.
These insights not only demonstrate the impact behavioral science can have on preserving the environment, they can also inform future strategy in this space. This project represents only the start of what can be achieved by applying a behavioral lens to water conservation, and we’re grateful to The World Bank for funding it.