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Creating a water resilient culture

Bridging Waters, 19 April 2018

This is the second Bridging Waters event for 2018.

The full series can be found here, along with past events.

19 April

Creating a water resilient culture

The psychology of water related behaviour change, including enjoyment (Conserve, Value, Enjoy.)

Conversation leaders:


Civil Engineering Teaching Lab 
New Engineering Building (NEB) Level 1 (Block B4 on the upper campus map)
Upper Campus, University of Cape Town (directions)
Rondebosch, Cape Town

Desired outcomes for what this conversation can start... 

  1. A better understanding of how to talk about moving to a better place
  2. Gather interest to help with rewording the Water Wise concept / principles put forward by the IWA to make resilient cities / water sensitive cities more accessible to the everyday person
  3. Gather interest to help with considering how the AquaSavvy campaign can help, and how it needs to be reworked to do so better
  4. Understanding what initiatives are out there and how they interrelate and complement each other.

In the preparation for this conversation, Robert shared the following:

These mostly come from the Common Cause work, but also from cognitive linguists like George Lakoff and Anat Shenker-Osorio.

Things to avoid when encouraging behaviour change:

  • Don’t lead with bad news and problems: Most people have enough problems in their lives (earning a basic living and making ends meet, getting the kids to school, dealing with difficult social situations, etc.) and they will do their best to avoid having to deal with more problems. Also, bad or threatening news shuts people down. Studies show that it reduces creativity and problem-solving ability and activates cognitive dissonance. Of course bad news does need to be communicated, but it should ideally be sandwiched between good news.
  • Don’t expect communicated facts to lead to behaviour change: While there fortunately are exceptions, most people don’t change behaviour when told the facts — otherwise we would by now have solved climate change, poverty and income inequality, gender inequality, the Cape Town water crisis, global indebtedness, etc. We are emotional creatures and mostly make decisions based on emotional reasoning (reasons that support our mental frames and the views of our in-groups). We often look for facts that support our particular frames and emotional opinions (confirmation bias).
  • Don’t frame your arguments in financial and status terms: “Save water and save money." “Save electricity and save money." “Be cool by saving water.” These generally don’t work as well as using intrinsic or moral framing and they entrench what are called extrinsic (self-centred or materialistic) values and frames, and thus behaviours. Numerous studies demonstrate that this leads to people showing reduced levels of care for and engagement in social and  environmental issues.

Things to do to encourage positive behaviour change:

  • Lead with shared intrinsic (compassionate or self-transcendence) values. Most people, it seems, prioritise these values anyway and these values unite. They are something that people can easily identify with. Support these values with good news stories — people identify with stories. E.g. Capetonians are collaborating. Together we are solving this problem. We've made mistakes, but together we are learning by doing.
  • Carefully describe the problem in more detail: This puts the call-for-action into context and it should offer clear reasons for the problem and what is holding us back from solving the problem — this requires extremely careful framing, so as to minimise activating contrary frames / knee-jerk reactions / the blame game / cognitive dissonance.
  • Highlight key objectives and a vision for the future: E.g. people are uniting to solve the city’s water crisis. Many people are leading by example and have changed their behaviour to help us avoid day zero. The objective is to cover the Cape Town map with green dots.
  • Offer suggestions for how to reduce water usage. Ideally through stories and examples, and across many social groups.
  • Actions speak louder than words. Where possible, develop approaches or ideas that allow others to observe the change of behaviour. This activates mirror neutrons and other powerful psychological processes that stimulate adopting a new behaviour. E.g. Encourage communities to get more involved in working together to reduce consumption within an area, a suburb block or street. So this is about neighbours working together to turn the block or street green.

Then there are also three human behavioural traits that Niki Harre highlights in her book ‘Psychology for a better world — Strategies to inspire sustainability’ that are useful. 

  • Humans are happiness seekers: happiness stimulates creativity, cooperation and commitment / openness to change. We need to ask ourselves how water saving initiatives can framed or structured to create positive emotions?
  • People are social: As social beings, we imitate each other, respond to social norms (what we think is normal behaviour), react to societal stories. How then do we reduce talking about undesirable behaviour, do and demonstrate the behaviour we advocate, leave behavioural traces, emphasise that the advocated behaviour is normal, tell stories of joy and success, and produce more vivid images / stories of a sustainable future?
  • People want to be good: And moral behaviour is held in place by the powerful emotions of shame or guilt (if you break a moral code) and anger (if someone else breaks moral code). How can we better work with this reality? By framing things in moral terms and appealing to people’s empathy.
  • Her video summarises these ideas.