Research Summary

Water education for sustainability: criteria and recommendations

Three Criteria for Effective Behavior Change Messaging

Society & Natural Resources

In the face of environmental issues such as drought, encouraging consumers to voluntarily change their behavior—in this case, to use less water—is a difficult, but critical, challenge. Many nonprofit organizations and resource management divisions are taking up this challenge through the use of conservation messaging. The authors of this paper worked with one such nonprofit in Phoenix, Arizona, to increase the effectiveness of their locally run water conservation program. Based on empirical and theoretical research about how people learn, the authors proposed three criteria for effective conservation messaging. These criteria were then applied to the evaluation of the Phoenix program to provide practical suggestions for how the program could be more effective.

The scholars first outlined three criteria for encouraging sustainable behaviors within conservation-focused organizations by summarizing the relevant academic literature. These three criteria deal with the type of knowledge conveyed, the delivery method, and the target audience. The first criterion is that the type of knowledge that is shared with audiences needs to be tailored toward behavior change. In particular, when organizations focus on specialized areas of knowledge, such as water conservation, the information needs to be both procedural and impact-based (i.e., outline the procedure for the behavior change and the impact it will have). Informational knowledge, such as stating, “We are are in a drought,” is less effective than saying “Save over 15 gallons of water by taking a shower instead of bath.” In other words, effective messaging provides people with the “how” of the behavior (i.e., “Take showers instead of baths.”) and also describes the impact of the behavior (i.e., “This will save 15 gallons of water.”).

The second criterion describes effective delivery methods. Research has shown that one-way delivery methods are much less effective than two-way, interactive methods that are reflective and collaborative. Two-way delivery methods mean that, if information is being shared by an organization, audience members have an opportunity to share their thoughts, questions, and opinions about the issue with the organization that delivered the message. Another example is within a classroom where the teacher and students are engaged in a dialogue. This type of interaction helps build trust in both the organization (or teacher) and in the knowledge being conveyed.

The third and final criterion the scholars recommend is that the organization must have an effective and clear target audience in mind. The researchers stress the importance of focusing on local leaders and those who have a disproportionate effect on the project goals. It is also wise to focus on those who may have the means and ability to take up the desired behavior. If the organization wishes to change driving habits, for example, the target audience should be adults who drive rather than adults who primarily use public transportation.

Next, the authors used these three outlined criteria to study the effectiveness of a water education program in Phoenix. They collected data through surveys and interviews with 20 managers involved in the project. They determined that the Phoenix water education effort did not meet any of their outlined criteria; therefore, it was much less effective than it could be. The content of the education program was mainly informational and focused on knowledge around education standards, drinking-water safety, and the water cycle. The delivery methods were all one-way and comprised of books, informational booths, and printed media. Last, the targeted audience was mainly children, who have little agency in making water conservation decisions. The scholars argued that the program should instead target the group who uses the most water: affluent homeowners.

Based on their evaluation, the authors recommended that the Phoenix program incorporate more procedural and impact-based knowledge, adapt interactive educational techniques, and tailor programs to specific actions and relevant populations. They also acknowledged that, despite their findings, this information might be highly contextualized to this particular program, and it is difficult to measure how effective these criteria are at actually reducing water usage over a large population.

The Bottom Line

To more effectively reach people with conservation messaging, the authors recommend following three criteria. First, educators can make sure that the information they share is focused on how to adapt a conservation behavior and the impact it will have, rather than just providing general content-based information about the problem. Stating that carpooling to work saves gas and reduces traffic is more effective at changing behavior than saying, “The average American uses 500 gallons of gas per year driving to and from work.” Second, involve people in the learning process by giving them the chance to interact and engage in activities rather than just sharing information. Last, make sure the programs and messages are reaching the audience that matters; i.e., if the focus is on conserving water, target the population that uses the most water and has the ability to change the behavior.