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Influencing domestic water use behaviour to target long-term water conservation

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Humanity faces unprecedented drought-related challenges, which requires higher investment levels in infrastructure and energy. In their paper, Dr Stef Koop and Dr Stijn Brouwer from KWR Water Research Institute argue that domestic water conservation can reduce costs and promote pro-environmental behaviour. Their literature review identifies eight empirical Behavioural Influencing Tactics (BITs) that might instigate household behavioural changes in relation to water conservation.

Humanity’s dietary habits, consumption patterns, and climate change-related droughts increase global water security threats. Household changes in water consumption behaviours can significantly contribute to alleviating water stresses. The global disparities in behaviour indicate how altered water consumption patterns might stabilise water security; for example, average water usage per person per day stands at 575 litres in the United States and 131 litres in China. In less industrialised countries, this number is much lower.

Owing to increased urbanisation, affluence and climate change, water scarcity crises such as those recently seen in South Africa and Australia are likely to occur more often. These environmental stressors increasingly necessitate investments for water infrastructures augmentation. Despite the effectiveness of domestic water conservation and its potential for saving both money and water, it remains an overlooked way to reduce drought-related stressors.

There are many known methods of incentivising domestic water use reduction, the most well-known being the increase of water prices or investment in new technologies. However, empirical methods for measuring the psychological factors that influence water conservation behaviour are understudied. Dr Koop’s and Dr Brouwer’s research seeks to elucidate how Behavioral Influencing Tactics (BITs) can stimulate water conservation in the home. They examine and review 52 studies related to the use of BITs in environmental and water conservation.

“Owing to increased urbanisation, increased affluence and climate change, water scarcity crises are likely to occur more often.”

Behavioural Influencing Tactics

The BITs studied in this research employ various methods and theories garnered from behavioural psychology, which has been shown to fundamentally influence human behaviour. The Theory of Planned Behaviour is a well-studied behaviour change model, which highlights a series of rational decisions that might lead to changes in people’s behaviour. Such rational decisions in the behaviour-changing process might have to do with the difficulty of making the change or might involve the influence of others making that change. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman proposes an alternate model, highlighting how decision-making is regularly dictated through several semiconscious and unconscious processes, such as loss aversion, bypassing rational thought.

Using these key insights from behavioural psychology, Dr Koop and Dr Brouwer study eight BIT’s which occupy three separate groups – reflective, semi-reflective and automatic – and all feature in water environmental conservation literature. The reflective route involves the conscious processing of information to make decisions through increased knowledge and self-efficacy. The semi-reflective route involves external stimuli or cues such as taking others’ behaviour as a cue to change one’s behaviour. In the automatic route, behavioural choices are made automatically through an emotional reaction, bypassing cognition or rational consideration.

Reflective Tactics

The reflective route refers to the conscious changing of attitudes by acquiring relevant experience and knowledge. The two BIT methods Dr Koop and Dr Brouwer identified in relation to this route include knowledge transfer (the sharing of information) and increased self-efficacy (believing someone has the ability to enact their intentions). It should be noted that both BIT methods are not mutually exclusive, and they may be difficult to distinguish from one another.

Knowledge transfer refers to providing information through advertising and media campaigns to raise awareness of water scarcity issues. This method reasons that the more people know about water shortages and conservation, the more likely they are to change their attitudes and behaviour. The reviewed studies found this method to be effective in the short term, i.e. throughout an advertising campaign. However, the researchers found this BIT not to have long-term behavioural effects.

Studies have shown that knowledge transfer through advertising and media campaigns can only be effective in the short term.

Increased self-efficacy involves empowering individuals to have the confidence to believe they can achieve their intentions when it comes to conserving water. Many studies have found that households may be knowledgeable about water conservation issues. However, they may not know the best possible action to rectify these issues. One study, for instance, showed how actionable instructions applied to water-using appliances reduced water usage by 23%. In contrast, an information leaflet given to the same family resulted in no water usage difference. They showed, therefore, that increased self-efficacy is a more effective BIT than knowledge transfer.

Semi-Reflective Tactics

Through the semi-reflective route, attitudes are formed through trial-and-error or general principles (e.g. based on previous decision-making or others’ decisions). Through this route, people rely on external stimuli to make decisions. These stimuli can include receiving a message from a well-trusted source or following others’ behaviours. The three tactics in this route are social norms, framing and tailoring.

Social norms develop when a person conforms to their social surroundings. Most studies have shown that when a person is confronted with their behaviour in relation to that of their peers, they are likely to conform. All reviewed studies that used social norms as a BIT showed a strong correlation between messaging that presented water conserving behaviour as a societal norm and high water conservation levels over longer periods.

Most studies have shown that when a person is confronted with their behaviour in relation to that of their peers, they are likely to conform.

Framing occurs when a specific part of a message is emphasised to achieve attitude changes. Framing uses unconscious biases, such as a desire to avoid loss over possible gain or the preference to deal with something impactful in the present over something that might impact the future. This BIT is understudied as a tactic in environmental or water conservation. However, the few studies that have used this tactic have shown it to be effective in water conservation.

Tailoring refers to individualised messaging, which would appeal to a specific person or group. Several study examples provide real-time water usage data through smart meters. These studies found that when someone is confronted with data tailored to their home’s water use, it usually is much higher than they anticipate, making them more likely to reduce their consumption. However, real-time water use feedback data as a stand-alone tactic seemed to only work in the short term. In order to achieve long-term behaviour change, various studies indicate that the water-use feedback needs to make use of other BITs, such as social norms.

Automatic Tactics

Automatic tactics play on the unconscious mind and induce an automatic response to change behaviour without reasoning through evoking an emotional response. The key BITs at play in this automatic route include using emotional shortcuts, priming and nudging.

The emotional shortcut tactic involves evoking emotions to inspire changes in behaviour. Studies have shown that expressive images or videos can substantially impact people’s environmental attitudes through evoking negative or positive emotions and are more effective than just sharing information.


Priming refers to environmental cues such as words, which can often be completely unrelated to the subject, evoking a feeling and activating a particular behaviour in someone. Priming is understudied as a BIT for inspiring water conservation. However, one study found that they could evoke shame and guilt in the study participants through them receiving an unrelated message about a sexually transmitted disease. This guilt triggered the participants to have an intention to conserve water.

Nudging tactic can be explained as the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without limiting freedom of choice. The principle is to make the ‘better’ option (highest in water conservation) more convenient to select. The nudging tactic can be more effective when combined with other BITs such as the framing tactic. Nudging has shown promising results for energy conservation through suggestive framing of energy labels. Although understudied for water conservation, manufacturers could also use nudging for suggestive labelling on water appliances to encourage water conservation.

“Behaviour Influencing Tactics – or simply BITs – are essential in addressing water scarcity through enhancing water conservation at home.”

BITs for water conservation

Considering the apparent water-related issues humanity currently faces, the necessity for domestic water use behavioural changes has never been more prescient. With increased climate change-related droughts, a rising global middle class, and higher urbanisation rates, water stress is only likely to be further exacerbated.

This study demonstrated that through its evaluation of BITs from 52 water conservation experiments, BITs are essential for behaviour and attitude changes in domestic water usage. In view of the relative limited number of multi-year studies, work remains to be done towards elucidating how to effectively prolong and reinforce newly formed water conservation routines. Moreover, the review showed that some key BITs were chronically underutilised and understudied (especially in the automatic route) in increasing water conservation behaviours. The study results also gave critical insight into how BITs can be substantially more effective when used in conjunction.

Dr Koop and Dr Brouwer’s vital work will be essential for shaping strategies, policies, and future water conservation campaigns and directing prospective studies going forward. The eight BITs in their research are an excellent focal point to changing water use behaviour individually. Yet, considering the increased efficacy when BITs are combined and the underrepresentation of the automatic route in studies, future research in water conservation behaviour change should concentrate on the effectiveness of combining BITs and the automatic route.

Do you believe that behavioural changes in water-stressed areas can completely negate the necessity for expensive water infrastructure such as desalination?

In many areas, the projected size of water scarcity leaves us with no other choice than to seize every opportunity for water conservation and reuse. Enhancing a household’s water conservation behaviour can make a considerable difference in this respect.



  • Koop, S.H.A, Van Dorssen, A.J., and Brouwer, S. (2019). Enhancing Domestic Water Conservation Behaviour: A Review on Empirical Studies on Influencing Tactics. Journal of Environmental Management, 247, 867-876. Available at:

Research Objectives

Dr Koop and Dr Brouwer identify eight different Behavioural Influencing Tactics (BITs) that target long-term water conservation behaviour within households.


This paper was based on research financed by the Joint Research Programme that KWR carries out for the Dutch drinking water companies and De Watergroep in Flanders (Belgium).


Alexander van Dorssen: Co-author, currently employed as Advisor of International Innovation at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO)


Steven (Stef) Koop is a PhD researcher at KWR Water Research Institute. His expertise include water conservation behaviour, integrated asset management and the assessment of urban water management. He is also affiliated to the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Stijn Brouwer (PhD) is a senior researcher at KWR Water Research Institute. His research interests are mainly in customer participation, citizen science, and strategic innovation. Dr Brouwer is the coordinator of the Customer theme group of the Joint Research Programme, and affiliated to the Department of Sociology, University of Antwerp, Belgium.

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(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License

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