How to change the way we value, use and manage water

If water is life, coverage of water crises reminds us of death — and may be prompting us to ignore threats. Ahead of World Water Day, Sarah Wolfe explains the psychology behind our behaviour, and how we can act differently.  

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March 21, 2018
Water flows from a pipe at the Reservoir Montsouris, a large supply of drinking water, located in the 14th district of Paris. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Pick up any newspaper and you’ll find alarming stories about a water crisis. Whether it’s Day Zero in Cape Town, swollen rivers menacing Southern Ontario or relentless droughts in the Prairies, the water crisis headlines flooding our media reinforce that old maxim, “if it bleeds it leads.”

Those grave headlines are understandable — we all need water to survive, and any threat to water is front page news. But although big alarming stories are great for getting people’s attention, they haven’t yet been shown to create and sustain long-term behavioural changes. And these stories can actually be counterproductive — people may make worse decisions after exposure to these dire messages. According to one theory, the headlines themselves — which play on our powerful subconscious fear of dying — are part of a much larger problem that could be hindering our best efforts towards water security.

As mere animals, humans instinctively want to survive and propagate, but we are unique in that our brains are also capable of abstract and symbolic thought. This cognitive ability comes at a cost: the unavoidable recognition of one’s inevitable death. So how do we maintain psychological equilibrium when constantly exposed to reminders of our physical vulnerability and mortality? The area of social psychology that looks at our repression of this mortality awareness is known as Terror Management Theory (TMT).

What TMT research has shown, over more than two decades of studies conducted in more than 25 countries, is that efforts to repress mortality awareness — both conscious and unconscious — consistently influence a diverse range of human attitudes and behaviours. In fact, these studies have shown that when we’re reminded of our mortality, our instinctive efforts to block or repress those death fears produce predictable responses, known as defences.

Humans have an arsenal of psychological defences in our toolkit to protect us from mortality awareness, ranging from outright denial and distraction to more subconscious reactions like cultural-worldview preservation, which causes us to protect and reinforce our sense of identity and value within our cultural norms because it makes us part of something bigger and longer-lasting than our time-limited biological selves.

These defences have been shown to influence attitudes and behaviours such as consumption choices, landscape preferences, wealth accumulation, political identities, ideologies and policy preferences, fostering of nationalism, support of sports teams, building of monumental architecture, engagement in philanthropy, and adoption of religious beliefs.

And because water security is so critical to our survival, our psychological defences around it may be some of the strongest. When we see one of those headlines about the dangerous urban flooding in Cambridge or Brantford, or the lack of water in Cape Town, our conscious brain registers concern, while our psychological defences jump into action to deny, distract, rationalize or even soothe ourselves with consumption. In other words, it does not prompt changes to our water consumption or to the way we value water. Could these defences help to explain — even though we have more information, tools and government support than ever, and we know the climate clock is ticking — why there is such a huge gap between concern and action?

The quandary is that although we have ever more and often better information, regulation and economic incentives, these elements have been shown to mostly influence only short-term behaviour. They are rarely powerful enough to fundamentally shift belief systems, values and long-term behaviours, all of which are heavily laden with implicit emotions, including fear. Even in the face of a global water crisis, these emotional responses may block changes to behaviour by increasing apathy, diverting attention and resources, or by creating active resistance to policy makers’ logical and rational initiatives.

"To achieve sustained change in environmental behaviour, researchers, water managers and policy makers must start anticipating the role psychological defences play."

Although we are not usually conscious of how our emotional defences affect our ‘rational’ decision processes, they intrinsically and substantively shape virtually all human choices — and can manifest as ‘irrational’ and ‘emotional’ responses and behaviour that plays a role in water decisions at multiple scales (household, national), from different perspectives (consumer, expert) and under variable environmental conditions (drought, flood).

For example, recent research on individuals’ water decisions and mortality awareness found evidence of how defences influence water consumption choices. A 2016 study by Stephanie Cote and myself found that corporate advertising campaigns effectively use mortality awareness, targeting their messages to people who measure their personal value by their physical appearance, fitness levels, material and financial wealth, class, and status. Pro-bottle water advertisements also allow us to repress mortality awareness by using ‘elite’ branding, celebrity endorsements and feel-good emotions that trigger our group identities and patriotism; these components effectively persuade us to ignore reasoned arguments for forgoing bottled water.

Furthermore, it’s quite possible that extreme water events’ increasing range, frequency and intensity, and the representation of these events, could trigger mortality defences that would quickly and preemptively undermine the effectiveness of diverse and participatory governance efforts.

There is good news, though. Leaders all over the world are making preparations for situations related to too much or too little water, or for dealing with contamination of water supplies. Huge amounts of money are being invested to develop new technologies and researchers are working to find the answers on how to solve these critical challenges. There are significant efforts underway to obtain better data, initiatives to change policy based on better information, and campaigns to change our usage behaviours. 

However, to achieve significant or sustained change in environmental behaviour, researchers, water managers and policy makers must start anticipating the role psychological defences play in water negotiations, governance processes, policy decision making and program implementation.

For example, factoring in mortality awareness defences could identify new ways to encourage individuals and groups to make better choices regarding water; it could help policy makers better influence people’s risk perceptions relating to water; it could aid the development of marketing for ‘water smart’ appliance purchases; and it could strengthen the effectiveness of campaigns against bottled water and for water education.

Our capacity, as individuals and as societies, to make the required and unprecedented shift in response to global water crises will demand increased recognition with our psychology, including feelings about mortality. And since the media’s coverage will continue on water and other climate-related crises, those of us who write about water issues must also grapple with this recognition. Water horror stories may drive clicks but these headlines and dire descriptions also have the potential to be deeply disruptive to the psychological equilibrium of the people we are most trying to influence. We need to recognize how subtle defences against mortality awareness may be impeding our best efforts to save the planet, no matter what our rational brains have to say about it.

Author’s note: Thank you to Kara Hearne (Water Institute) and Sam Toman (Faculty of Environment) for their assistance crafting this text. My research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council’s Insight Development grant [430-2012-0264] with additional financial support from the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment and Waterloo International.