People can and do change, with the right kind of behavioural intervention

Interview: "It's not a good idea to blindly take what was done in this study and try to do it all over the place. Human behaviour is highly context specific".

Over the years, we have noticed that giving people tips on water conservation often does not translate into practice, especially over the long term. A recent study by researchers at IIM-B shows that behavioural interventions could be a solution.

The researchers, Vivek, Deepak Malghan and Kanchan Mukherjee, conducted the study at a 120-unit affluent apartment community in the outskirts of Bengaluru. Each flat in the complex had individual water meters installed already, so each household’s consumption could be measured.

The researchers divided the households into four groups:

  • The T1 group were given weekly reports on their per-person water usage
  • T2 group was also given weekly water usage reports, but also a goal of using only 60 lpcd (litres of water per capita per day) and feedback on how close they were to achieving it
  • T3 group was given both sets of information plus some easy tips on water conservation
  • The control group was given no information at all

When doing routine tasks like taking showers or doing dishes, we follow our habits which are automatic responses. Behavioural interventions aim to invoke deliberative thinking which would interfere with these automatic responses and motivate change.

The intervention in the apartments was done for five weeks in November-December 2016, when households were paying a flat fee for water, so they had no economic incentive to reduce usage. Yet, over this period and for a year afterwards, the T3 group,which had received all three categories of information, had reduced their water consumption the most, by 15-25%. 

Later, in 2018, when the apartment association introduced pricing based on consumption instead of the flat fee being charged earlier, the T3 group continued to reduce their water usage significantly and also maintained these results over time. The study concluded that it is possible to achieve persistent results in water conservation through behavioural interventions. 

In an interview with this reporter, Vivek, lead author of the study, talks about applications of the study in Bengaluru, and more. Excerpts:

Vivek, lead author of the study. Pic Credit: Vivek

In the study, consumption-based pricing came after behavioural interventions. Was this a specific strategy? 

The behavioural interventions were really what we designed and implemented, the pricing was not our design or recommendation. Our research did not go into whether pricing is important or not. Our research was only about behavioural intervention. And the point we are making is that behavioural intervention can have a significant and lasting effect irrespective of pricing.

Any specific reason for selecting 60 lpcd as the goal for T2 and T3 groups?

Yes. Over the years, WHO has been publishing what’s a reasonable level of water use. It is usually 135-140 lpcd. Flushing roughly accounts for half this water usage. In this community, they have recycled water for flushing.

So our measurement excluded flushing, making about 70 lpcd a good target. But we wanted to deliberately keep it a little tough, as according to behavioural science, if the goal is easy, it won’t be very motivating. We didn’t want to make it an impossible goal either, like 30 or 40 lpcd. So we went by the WHO guidelines, and then kept it a little on the lower side.

One of the study’s findings is that giving information alone is not enough.

This is unfortunate but true. Awareness effects are sometimes small; more often it has no effect or the effect is really transient. It can be a starting point, but it is not enough, because behaviour change is the real hurdle.

Globally, have there been models of implementing behavioural interventions in policy? Or is this still an emerging area?

The concept of behavioural interventions is not new. But there is no easy-to-use guide or template on how to go about it. 

For instance, in UK, a Behavioural Insights Team was set up around 10 years back. They have a website which helps you figure out what type of intervention is relevant in your context and how to go about it. But it’s very basic. 

This has been an area of research for the last 20-30 years, especially in the drier pockets of the world if you speak of domestic water. California, which is geographically a desert but has a very large and very rich population, has had a number of behavioural interventions. Australia too.

Apart from water, behavioural science is important in many other sectors. Last week, an officer from the World Bank who had led India’s Swacch Bharat Mission, presented his findings on how they made use of behavioural science. This is because the use of toilets is not just a question of providing infrastructure, it’s a mental and social barrier. So behavioural science is now slowly getting recognised, even in India. 

Read more: Bengaluru, second highest in rainwater harvesting in Indian cities

The World Bank, in 2015, had presented their annual report on this theme. For some time now, the UN has been publishing a lot of material on how to implement behavioural science in policy. So it’s an area which has a lot of promise because human beings are not just economic agents, we don’t care only about money, but also other things that are important to us. Advertisers and marketers have exploited human nature, but public policy is lagging in understanding human nature and how to align implementation efforts with it.

In India this is still relatively new. We have no national level think tank like UK’s Behaviour Insights Team. It has been used here and there, but in some cases it has had the opposite effect to what was intended as it was done without a clear understanding.

Let’s say you tell somebody ‘Don’t use so much water’. If you warn or threaten, people tend to fight it, and that makes the problem worse. Especially when you tell people who don’t even get adequate water supply.

Are there any plans now to scale up the study? Are you considering speaking to the BWSSB?

Yes, I’m very keen to do that, and we’d like to talk not only to BWSSB but also others like Delhi Jal Board who may be interested. But my role is that of a researcher and I can contribute from that perspective. It has to be something that they would have to own and run as one of their initiatives.

In practice, what would the BWSSB’s implementation of behavioural interventions at the policy level be like? 

 It is not a good idea to blindly take what was done in this study and try to do it all over the place. Why it works in a particular place has to be understood. 

In our study, the target is a community that gets 24X7 water, doesn’t feel water scarcity, and hence can afford to waste water. But Bengaluru is very, very diverse, there are so many people who don’t even get enough water, so where is the question of asking them to reduce water usage? 

Apartments and residences in outer areas of Bengaluru
Many households in Bengaluru don’t have 24X7 water supply. Pic: Meera K

So if BWSSB wants to first try and replicate this study, they will have to pick apartments and communities which are similar in income profile, which have 24X7 supply. 

In other settings, they will have to step back and look at what’s relevant in that context. In our study, we gave a target of 60 lpcd, but in an independent house or layout of similar income profile, they won’t have recycled water for flushing. So the target itself would be different – you may have to set 120 or 100 litres (instead of 60 litres). This is a simple example to show that these things are very context-sensitive. 

Read more: How this Bengaluru apartment cut water consumption by 52% with just three measures

Also, metering is necessary, without it household-level feedback is not possible. BWSSB has metering only partially — they give connections at the apartment level, not at the family dwelling-unit level. So they will have to look at where they have meters at the family-unit level, and then introduce some interventions as part of their bill. That’s what companies in Australia and California do. Behavioural interventions are typically an addition to the bill either as part of it or sent separately.

Could you elaborate on the interventions in Australia and California?

In Australia and California, they have household-level metering and billing, so consumers already have an economic incentive in place to reduce water usage.

A common thing they do is comparison. They say [to consumers] that, in your city on an average, households are using this much water, and this is what you are using. So it helps influence those consuming more than the average to reduce use. Utility companies use this comparison as much as possible in similar layouts with same size houses, or in the same neighbourhood, so that they are not comparing apples to oranges. This has evolved over time.

Initially they were doing very broad comparisons, and they realised it had a lot of adverse effects. Because those who are using less say, ‘Oh I’m using so little and I can use more’. That’s one of the problems with comparison – if you are doing better than the basis of comparison, you have to be motivated to stay there. Then they made several changes – they started making it more local and among similar households. And they started giving feedback like ‘If you are below [the basis of comparison], that’s good, keep it up, try to stay at that level rather than rebound’.

But one problem with that kind of approach is, how do you judge if a household’s consumption is wasteful or not based on social comparison alone. That’s where, in our study, the WHO guideline comes in; it brings in that absolute index which is scientifically valid. Secondly, these companies don’t mention the [average] per-person usage, they just mention something like the size of the household. Whereas our study brings in per-person consumption. Because water is heavily tied to individuals’ use, it’s not just about the size of the household. Making these improvements is important.

So there are only a few examples globally of such interventions, and the framework for these are evolving. There are no specific standards as yet.

Human behaviour is highly context-dependent, especially in complex domains. That’s why specific standards are unlikely to emerge anytime soon. Even pricing has been there for centuries, but no standards on pricing have emerged. Can BWSSB blindly put a price on water? No, there are so many factors – political, social. 

In the context of Bengaluru, what are the other areas where behavioural interventions can be used. For example, in waste management?

Behavioural interventions are very common in healthcare – like changing an individual’s dietary habits or having them do regular exercise.

Specific to our study, it can be most easily translated to water use in other larger, well-off communities. You can also probably extend it to household energy consumption. 

As for things like waste management and segregation, the basic idea will have to be thought from scratch using the relevant behavioural science concept. But yes, our framework – providing information, then setting some sort of goal, and then making it easy to reach that goal – can be used again and again at the individual/household level. But if we want to talk about why the contractor is mixing up segregated garbage, that’s a different problem altogether. It’s an economic issue really – he’s not incentivised to keep it separate, he doesn’t get rewarded or punished.

[Kanchan Mukherjee contributed to this interview.]

[The research paper was published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).]

Errata: This article had an error in the reference to the research paper and has been updated with the correct link.

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