3 reasons water restrictions don't work
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Although a terrifying prospect, the current water crisis offers a perfect example of a poor strategy choice by the Cape Town government.
In a recent PSA delivered just before the end of 2016, a substantial increase in water usage was reported. This happened despite numerous efforts (the efficacy of which I wish to discuss) to curb it. Residents, in response to water regulations it seems, went ahead and racked up a daily water usage in excess of 900 million litres, surpassing the set daily target by more than 100 million litres. So, why on earth did this happen and how can we stop it from spiralling further out of control?
The two reasons cited by the Cape Town government’s PSA for these numbers are as follows: (1) Ignorance and (2) the increasingly warm weather. Right off the bat, I have to disagree strongly with this overly simplistic diagnosis, firstly because it lacks evidence or logical reasoning and secondly because it hints of scapegoating. The later particularly rings true in light of their coming direct-mailer, educational drive, the outcome of which will be: “[with information now in hand] … there will be no excuse for ignorance or water wastage.” I am quite taken aback by this level of reasoning, not to mention the solutions that have stemmed from it. But, this second part might almost be forgiven – because how can you expect someone to solve something that they’ve misdiagnosed. Treating a misdiagnosis, it may be argued, may even exacerbate the problem – and in this case, I think it has.
This (evidently) impotent system is based on restrictions, resulting in incrementally increased tariffs based on usage (read fines) that basically amount to warnings and reprimands. This strategy is patently a fallacy, based on the premise that people are rational machines and can be expected to behave as such with the correct information in hand. And so, when we tell someone “Don’t do this, or else”, we should not be surprised when the exact opposite behavior is produced than was expected – as it appears may be the case with the 900 million litre a day figure. And there are some very good reasons for this.
Reactance occurs when an individual feels that their choices are being eroded or that their range of alternatives is being limited. The Cape Town government has limited residents’ volume of water consumption as well as what they are allowed to use that water for. This will likely produce the desire to perform the exact opposite of the desired behaviour, which may well explain the increase in usage.
This contrary reaction allows the person to feel as though they have taken back their perceived loss of control. Are we then surprised that someone may actually cut off their nose to spite their face – or waste precious water, knowing full well its detrimental effect on the greater population? We do this all the time – some of us on a daily basis. One study even found that people were more likely to taste fatty foods when there were health labels explicitly warning them otherwise.
Rebound is the effect produced when a person is asked not to think about something and, in doing so, ensures that all they can think about is that restricted thing. The relevance here is that by constantly hearing about water shortages, residents can’t help but think about water and all it’s related uses – like watering their wilting gardens, or filling their evaporating pools. This also explains the increase in consumption.
3. A fine is a price
A famous study found that, by introducing a fine for late parents, a child day care facility actually increased the number of late comers rather than decreased it. This is because parents were now able to put a value to having 15 minutes extra to leave the house and not face the stress of dropping their child off on time. As long as you paid the fine, being late had now become an affordable and guilt-free option. What we can learn from this is that, in order to incentivise the desired behaviour, the price must either be repulsively high or not be there at all but, that even then, there are those who will still be able to afford it.
Going forward one thing is clear; it would be highly beneficial for the Cape Town government to review its strategy for addressing the current water crisis. Whatever the intervention of choice, the efficacy would be immensely improved if it incorporated a few easily implementable behavioural science learnings. The most applicable, in this instance, coming from the Behavioural Insight’s EAST Framework, namely, “make it social”. People tend to react better to a message that is framed socially – that is, it suggests the possibility of social ostracisation if someone were to break the restriction. Another relevant insight by the above mentioned insights team also found that removing anonymity through printing people’s names on correspondence for traffic violations, it improved the efficacy of getting people to pay their fines. The short of it is, that more can be done by taking responsibility and learning from failures.