Research Summary

Exploring stakeholders’ attitudes and beliefs regarding behaviors that prevent the spread of invasive species

Stakeholders Identify Barriers to Behaviors that Stop the Spread of Invasive Species

Environmental Education Research

The spread of invasive species is a critical environmental issue that threatens biodiversity, human health, and, increasingly, economic health. One recent estimate of the impact of invasive species in the United States puts the cost at over $143 billion annually. Human behaviors contribute to many invasive species introductions and can help species spread faster once introduced, so influencing human behavior has become an important part of the strategy to fight invasives.

But, as the authors of this paper learned, getting people to do the take expert-recommended actions to help stop the spread of invasive species is not easy. The authors focused on four groups, all of which engage in leisure activities with the potential to add to the invasive species problem: hunters, gardeners, fishers, and boaters. The authors conducted focus groups with people who participate in each of these activities to better understand the barriers to behaviors that help prevent the spread of invasive species (for example, behaviors such as washing a boat with bleach to kill invasive aquatic weeds, washing the mud from car tires after a hunting excursion, or pulling invasive weeds from gardens).

The researchers, located in Oregon, conducted the focus groups--which included between five to eight people each--with local users who they believed had already been exposed to some level of education about invasive species. The researchers explain, “This generated a purposive sample population comprised of the ‘low-hanging fruit’: members of groups who would most likely change behaviors because they are already aware of the problems associated with invasive species.” The focus groups centered around a set of semi-structured questions that were the same for all four user groups.

In analyzing the results of the discussions, the researchers focused on three key areas: participants’ attitudes (which they defined as “whether or not a person perceives that the behavior will effectively produce a desired outcome”), subjective norms (“perceptions of what others think or do regarding the desired preventive behavior”), and behavioral control beliefs (“perceived levels of self-efficacy to perform a behavior,” or in other words, whether people feel capable of performing the behavior).

Participants in all four groups shared two key attitudes regarding the preventative behaviors. First, they questioned whether many of the preventative measures might do more harm than good. For example, they questioned whether using herbicides to kill invasive weeds might harm beneficial plants. Likewise, they questioned the use of bleach to clean boats, when the bleach could easily enter the waterway and harm the ecosystem. Second, the participants expressed a feeling that their efforts might be futile in the face of much larger environmental changes such as global warming, globalization, land use changes, pollution, and other large-scale changes over which they had little control.

In terms of subjective norms, participants in all four groups expressed a feeling that institutions were not doing all they could to stop the spread of invasive species, adding to their feelings that their individual actions were not likely to be effective. The groups also all shared an impression that the general public is not interested in or knowledgeable about the issue. And since it takes just one species introduction to create a larger invasion, participants felt that the actions of many knowledgeable people could easily be undone by one or a few people who don’t know about the issue.

Finally, the stakeholder groups identified two key behavioral control beliefs. First, they felt frustrated by a lack of clear, actionable information about what to do. Many participants felt they were not able to properly identify invasive species, or were confused by overly general behavioral requests, such as the request to “clean your boat.” And when they did understand what to do, many felt that the requested behaviors were too difficult to perform. One boater explained, “One of my boats is 22 feet long and has several motors on it and the thought of cleaning the whole thing down with bleach . . . it is not very practical.”

Although this research was conducted with a small number of participants who were not randomly selected and who were relatively homogeneous in their socio-economic backgrounds, the research does shed light on challenges faced by managers fighting the spread of invasive species. The results indicate the need for clear, specific information about what to do to help stop the spread of invasives. People need to feel more confident in their ability to identify invasives, and reassurance that their actions will make a difference. Working with user groups such as those identified in this study can help create peer networks that reinforce social norms that support engaging in the preventative behaviors. And government institutions may have to do do more to demonstrate their own commitment to the problem.

The Bottom Line

Although this was a small study of a narrow group of users, it reinforces the need for clear, practical advice about how to effectively perform a behavior. Research has shown that a lack of this kind of action knowledge can be a barrier to adopting a behavior. This research also serves as a reminder of the importance of making environmental problems feel manageable. Numerous study participants felt overwhelmed by the problem of invasive species, and skeptical that their actions would make a difference. This is a challenge common to many environmental issues, and this research underscores the need to be clear about how people’s actions will help. People need clear and specific information about what to do, the request must be reasonable, and they need to know that if they do it, it will make a difference.