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The Human Factor

By Andrea Appleton
The best way to improve the environment? Be honest about human behavior.

Supporters of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 credit it with saving hundreds of species from extinction. They call it one of the most successful conservation laws in history, the “crown jewel” of American environmental legislation.

Not so fast, says Johns Hopkins behavioral economist Paul Ferraro. The Endangered Species Act was designed to prevent species on the verge of going extinct from doing so, and to help them recover and stabilize. Habitat loss is the biggest threat, so protecting the ecosystems where listed species live is a major aspect of the law. The bald eagle, the gray wolf, and the grizzly bear are a few of the iconic animals that have rebounded since the government listed them.

But very few listed species have recovered enough to merit removal from the list. It’s been four decades since the Endangered Species Act was passed, and Ferraro says we haven’t made much progress in determining whether it really works. Studies often compare how robust a species was before it was listed to how it fared afterward. But that approach doesn’t answer a key question: What would have happened to a species had it not been listed?

“We tend to rely on assumptions about how human beings will behave in a given circumstance rather than looking at how they actually behave.”

In 2007, Ferraro attempted to answer that question. He co-authored a study that matched listed species with unlisted ones based on numerous factors: biological similarities, habitat, and the relative charisma of the species. (When people have an affinity for a particular animal, they tend to support funding to help it.) He and his colleagues then tracked what had happened to each species. They found no evidence that those protected by the Endangered Species Act fared better than similar species that hadn’t been listed. In fact, the study found that, on average, just listing a species under the act without devoting any money to helping it actually hurt chances of recovery.

How can this be?

It comes down to human behavior. “We assume you make a law and everybody follows it,” Ferraro says. “But the problem is that we can’t observe everybody’s behavior.”

Property owners have been known to purposely kill endangered species and hide the evidence. They do this to protect livestock, or to avoid the land-use regulations that can accompany an endangered species designation. The practice is known in the environmental world as “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”

Ferraro’s study didn’t get a warm reception. After all, many organizations spend significant time and money pressuring the government to list declining species under the act. “Their whole model is based on, ‘This thing works, and we’ve got to just keep expanding it,’” Ferraro says. “So anybody who’s questioning that is the enemy.”

Ferraro has built a career out of tipping the environmental movement’s sacred cows. The story of his research on the Endangered Species Act illustrates his twin obsessions: How do you get human beings to change their behavior in ways that help the environment? And do the environmental programs we’ve developed actually work the way we think they do?

Ferraro’s research has found, time and again, that society’s solutions to environmental problems aren’t as effective as we think they are. That’s because, he’s concluded, we tend to rely on assumptions about how human beings will behave in a given circumstance rather than looking at how they actually behave. “Most environmental problems are human behavior problems,” Ferraro says. “So if you want to improve the environment, you’ve got to change human behavior.”

These days Ferraro is studying a different sort of endangered resource: water. Water scarcity affects every continent on earth. Studies have found that in less than a century, up to a fifth of the world’s population could experience severe water shortages. In response, policymakers and engineers all over the world have devised strategies to reduce water consumption. But despite the best of intentions, Ferraro says, they often operate under assumptions that don’t match human behavior.

One popular strategy, as in many environmental campaigns, is education. During the recent drought in California, for example, state and local governments shared information about the water shortage in formats ranging from electronic highway signs to movie trailers. But while education may be a necessary component of many environmental efforts, Ferraro says, there’s no data to suggest that it’s transformative. “Environmentalists are famous for thinking education is really important,” he says. That could be a case of what psychologists call self-attribution bias: the tendency to attribute successful outcomes to our own actions. “That’s how I became an environmentalist: I learned about the environment. These people are just not educated enough.”

Some see technology as the panacea for environmental problems, including water scarcity. But Ferraro says that if new technology isn’t paired with an understanding of human behavior, it’s likely to fall short. Take a study he recently conducted in Central America. It concerned a technology many of us are familiar with: low-flow water fixtures. Installing an efficient showerhead is believed to reduce water usage, but little research has been done to show how much water these fixtures actually save once they’ve been transported from a pristine laboratory to the messy reality of someone’s home. Ferraro and several colleagues decided to do that work. They were particularly interested in studying the problem in an arid region, where water was scarce (as was the case with their funder, the Canadian government).

They conducted their research in 2015, in several low-income communities in the province of Guanacaste, the driest region in Costa Rica. Francisco Alpizar, director of research at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Costa Rica, worked with Ferraro on the study. “All the water in rural areas here is drawn from deep wells, and it uses a lot of electricity to pump it,” he says. “They have a limited amount of water and they spend a lot of money getting it out. That’s why it’s so important to reduce water use.”

The team went door to door seeking participants. Each resident was offered the chance to have new low-flow water fixtures installed for free in their homes. The researchers instructed those who accepted to pick a poker chip from a bag. A blue chip meant the participant would receive the technology. A white chip meant the participant would be part of the control group, receiving no new fixtures but serving as a comparison for those who did.

The houses of the approximately 1,400 participants in the study were mostly small concrete-block buildings with tin roofs. In some cases, the faucet was simply a pipe jutting out of the wall with no fixture attached. “We might actually have to put threads on the pipe,” Ferraro says. “And some pipes were a weird size that didn’t match the fixture.” And as in many low-income countries, the water flowing through those pipes tended to have a good deal more sediment than the distilled water engineers use when testing fixtures in the lab.

Those were just a few of the obstacles. After four months, the team found that the fixtures reduced water use, but by a third less than engineers had estimated. After 16 months, the savings had declined even further. The fact that the fixtures had to be jerry rigged into old homes was partly to blame, Ferraro says, and lowflow technology can become less efficient over time. In this case, the sediment tended to clog the fixtures, in some cases leading the household to give up on the technology altogether. In other cases, the very efficiency of the fixtures may have led people to use more water. Americans with low-flow fixtures can probably relate. “You might think, ‘I used to fill up my dishwasher, but now this thing is so efficient, I just fill up half loads so I always have clean glasses,’” Ferraro says.

The inherent human tendency toward self-interest continues to be what makes solving environmental problems so difficult.

Another place where water gets wasted is in agriculture, which accounts for around 80 percent of U.S. water consumption. Going forward, Ferraro hopes to study strategies for reducing water use in agriculture. In that vein, three years ago he co-founded the Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-Environmental Research, or CBEAR. As the name implies, the center—which is operated by several research universities under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture—applies behavioral insights and experimental design to agricultural and environmental problems.

As demand for water increases, farmers have been under pressure to use less. But a recent study of the Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains found that farmers increased their water use after getting subsidies to adopt more efficient water-use technology. One reason is that they were able to switch to more waterintensive crops. It’s a disheartening finding, and one that could have huge implications: Efficient water-use technologies are in operation all over the world. But Ferraro says it’s hard to fund the kind of studies he hopes to conduct. “The reaction is, ‘What do you mean we don’t know whether this works? There are all these engineering studies claiming 30 percent reductions.’ We have to say, ‘But none of that is based on actual human behavior.’” Ecologist Garrett Hardin has a rather bleak claim to fame. He was among the first to apply the idea of the “tragedy of the commons” to the environment. The theory goes that given a shared resource, each individual will have a tendency to exploit it to his or her own benefit, at the expense of the larger society. Hardin wrote about this concept in an article for Science magazine in 1968. “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush,” Hardin wrote, “each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”

The “commons” he is referring to are the planet’s natural resources. And the inherent human tendency toward selfinterest continues to be what makes solving environmental problems so difficult.

“You’re asking people to change their behavior largely for others,” Ferraro says. “It’s hard enough to get people to change their behavior for themselves: stop smoking, reduce their fat or sugar intake. And most of the benefits when we turn off the lights or carpool are external to ourselves, so it’s tricky.”

But behavioral economists have devised some strategies that do change behavior, at least for a certain percentage of people. The field of behavioral economics, which draws from psychology, was developed to explain why human beings don’t always make the rational decisions traditional economic models predict they would: to exercise regularly, for instance, or to save for retirement. Psychologists have long known that human beings are subject to a range of cognitive biases that lead them to act irrationally—for example, the bias that leads some environmentalists to think that all we need to do is educate people—and behavioral economists argue that we can exploit these cognitive biases for good. And they have recently turned their attention to the environment.

Picture your last electric bill, for example. It likely included a bar graph indicating how much energy you used over the billing period compared to your neighbors. That graph is there thanks to dozens of randomized controlled trials in cities across the country. On average, consumers exposed to a social comparison like this reduce their energy use by up to 5 percent. In this case, a desire to adhere to social norms is a cognitive bias that behavioral economists have learned to capitalize on.

Here’s another: When there’s a default option, people tend to go with that option rather than choose an alternative. This is known as the status quo bias. For example, one study in Germany found major increases in green energy use when consumers were automatically signed up to purchase their energy from more sustainable sources. (They had to opt out if they wanted to purchase from a different source.)

Humans hate to lose, and behavioral economists have found that useful as well. For instance, it tends to bother people more to lose a given amount of money than it feels good to gain that same amount. Researchers and marketers know that framing a message as a loss rather than a gain often gets better results. So, the theory goes, a public service announcement describing the costs of not recycling (the number of trees lost) would likely be more effective than one describing the benefits of recycling (the number of trees saved).

Conducting an experiment necessarily involves admitting uncertainty. That’s acceptable, even desirable, in science. But it is anathema in politics, particularly in these contentious times.

Behavioral economics has seen success in arenas ranging from food and health policy to finance. But Ferraro notes that the conservation world has been slow to adopt behavioral “nudges” the field is known for. He believes they are a cheap, noncoercive way to make progress on environmental issues. But he cautions that progress is likely to be limited. Nudges go only so far, wringing at best a few extra percentage points of improvement out of a given effort. When it comes to large-scale problems like climate change, that stubborn human tendency toward self-interest remains an obstacle. Still, Ferraro believes there is a way to subvert even that cognitive habit. The key, he says, is to align individual incentives with broader environmental goals. “Even though I do work on all of these psychological embellishments,” he says, “if you don’t have the incentives right, nothing else will work.”

Ferraro believes precious resources like water and energy should cost more, for example. A higher price would give us more incentive to conserve. And he says a carbon tax that reflects the true environmental costs associated with emitting greenhouse gases would succeed in lowering emissions, if—and here’s a giant if—the tactic was adopted around the globe.

Above all, Ferraro hopes to introduce a culture of experimentation into the environmental field. He wants policymakers to test their assumptions about human behavior before acting on them. That’s a hard sell, given that environmental problems are so often politically charged. Conducting an experiment necessarily involves admitting uncertainty. That’s acceptable, even desirable, in science. But it is anathema in politics, particularly in these contentious times. “You open up a space for your political opponents to say, ‘Aha! You don’t know whether this thing works or not,’” Ferraro says. “And your political opponents are not going to say, ‘OK, so let’s do this experiment.’ They’re going to try to defund you.”

Nevertheless, Ferraro hopes that policymakers and environmentalists alike will come to understand the need for testing and evidence. He often makes comparisons to the field of medicine, where experimentation is a given. “Medicine has a tradition of questioning,” Ferraro says. For now, his tone is wistful.

ways to waste water
Illustration by Sonia Pulido

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