Change in Water Consumption Behaviour —

Australia is the driest inhabited continent, but it has one of the highest per capita water consumption rates in the world. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2014) Australians use approximately 20,000 gigalitres of water, four times the amount contained in Sydney Harbour.

… social sciences have produced a large number of behavioural theories relevant to managing domestic water use.

Professor Don Hine, School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences
Dr Jacqueline Williams, School of Law
Ms Lynette McLeod, doctoral candidate, School of Law
Mr Aaron B. Driver, doctoral candidate, School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences

Principles and methods from the social sciences can help formulate and deliver ‘behaviourally effective’ government policy to reduce household water use.
There have been numerous education and behaviour change programs aimed at reducing domestic water use. A national water labelling system was introduced in 2006, providing consumers with information about water consumption and a range of products such as shower heads, dishwashers and clothes washers. Many local councils have implemented incentives whereby water saving products attract cash rebates. Programs such as these help drive changes in water conservation practices, and have produced substantial increases in the installation of water tanks, grey-water systems, dual-flush toilets and low flow showerheads. Many Australians report taking steps to reduce household water use by using washing machines only when full loaded, taking shorter showers, turning off taps when brushing teeth and shaving, using the half-flush button on dual flush toilets. Despite this, Australia still has one of the highest rates of per capita water usage in the world.

This lack of progress has created a growing awareness that the successful delivery of water policy requires a more sophisticated understanding of the drivers of human behaviour, and how behaviour change is best accomplished. Psychologists have developed an extensive range of behavioural theories that identify the factors (triggers, motivational drivers, and internal CHANGE IN WATER CONSUMPTION BEHAVIOUR and external barriers) that influence the likelihood that a specific behaviour will occur. The researchers reviewed four theories relevant to water conservation, decomposed them into their component parts, and reintegrated them using the Behaviour Change Wheel (BCW), a general framework that has been used extensively in health psychology. The BCW distinguishes between three main classes of factors that influence behaviour: (1) Capability – an individual’s capacity to engage in water conservation activities (eg, possessing relevant knowledge, skills, and physical strength), (2) Opportunity – facilitating conditions in the external environment that prompt or enable the target behaviour to occur (eg, cultural or community values and norms that encourage or discourage the behaviour), and (3) motivation – factors internal to the individual that energize or direct behaviour (eg, expecting that there will be substantial financial savings associated with engaging in water conservation or having positive feelings about doing something good for the environment). One key strength of the BCW is that it provides an evidenced-based framework for using information about the causes of behaviour – capability, opportunity and motivation – to identify the most appropriate intervention and policy tools to change behaviour.

The social sciences have produced a large number of behavioural theories relevant to managing domestic water use. These theories, and integrative frameworks like the BCW, can help policy makers and practitioners understand the causes of problematic water use behaviours, and identify the most appropriate intervention strategies and policies for changing them. Changing behaviour is a complex task, and attention to detail is critical for success. The BCW provides policy makers and practitioners with a common language and model to communicate about water conservation behaviour, and the factors that cause it.