Using Social Science to Promote Healthy Lakes |
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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


Using Social Science to Promote Healthy Lakes

Tue, 01/13/2015 - 6:31am -- Bret Shaw

How can we influence shoreland property owners to make lake-friendly decisions?

We are fortunate to have approximately 15,000 lakes in Wisconsin where we fish, swim, boat, relax, and enjoy the beautiful views. Unfortunately, increased shoreland development on many lakes and the landscaping decisions made by property owners (e.g. neatly manicured lawns and sandy beaches) have had a negative impact on wildlife habitat, water quality, and natural scenic beauty. While homeowners see their individual property changes as small and insignificant, lake managers and scientists are observing broader trends and significant impacts from the many small actions that have led to measurable declines in water quality and habitat availability. Most natural scientists agree that the most important action shoreline property owners can take to address these challenges is to preserve or restore buffer zones of native vegetation along their lakeshore.

Like hundreds of other small seapage lakes in NW Wisconsin, Long and Des Moines Lakes have some very developed shorelines.

Like hundreds of other small seapage lakes in NW Wisconsin, Long and Des Moines Lakes have some very developed shorelines.

The natural sciences are necessary to continuing our understanding of how best to protect our lakes and shoreline. However, they do not provide guidance on how to motivate people to actually adopt these practices on their property. Social science is essential to understanding how shoreland owners’ knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs interact with land use decisions and the adoption of lake-friendly landscaping behaviors.

Over the past seven years, I have had the opportunity to work with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, UW-Extension, county land and conservation departments, and other organizations to research how to most effectively conduct outreach to promote more natural vegetation among lakeshore property owners. This blog post highlights key points from social science research on how to encourage property owners to adopt more natural shorelines.

Research & Results

We have found that belief in the importance of natural shorelines alone is not directly related to actual behavior in terms of landscaping practices. Most lakeshore property owners already believe that more natural shorelines are important for lake health regardless of how they actually maintain their own land. This suggests that providing information about the benefits of natural shorelines may be necessary but not sufficient to produce behavior change.

Self-perception bias is a human tendency for overly positive evaluations of one’s self and own behavior. This bias is one potential barrier to the adoption of more natural shorelines among lakeshore property owners. To test this idea, we selected photos of moderately developed lakeshore properties and had property owners rate photos of their own and others' shorelines on four dimensions: contribution to natural beauty, usefulness for enjoying the lake, contribution to good water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat. In all four areas, participants rated their property more positively than other participants rated it. Self-perception bias appears to affect property owners' evaluations of their shoreline and therefore may prevent steps for remediation that might otherwise be taken. Taken into context with our other studies, the phenomenon suggests that property owners may agree that natural shorelines are important but feel they are already doing better than their neighbors.

Given property owners’ overly positive assessment of their property, we set out to test whether providing them with objective information about their shoreline's ecological state might be an effective strategy for improving lake health. This included sending each property owner a map that rated the vegetation on their parcel in terms of being “lake-friendly” relative to their neighbors’ properties. Using publicly available data, we provided property owners objective information about the condition of their shorelines to help them more critically assess their land and plant more natural vegetation. In general, participants reported slightly greater willingness to increase their shoreline vegetation if they received the map. However, there was a vocal subset of property owners whose shorelines were most degraded that were vociferously put off by this approach, viewing it as an affront to their personal integrity and private property rights.

This type of reaction can potentially be explained by Reactance Theory, which suggests that one factor in their resistance to our outreach using maps may have been a perceived threat to autonomy or the freedom to do as they choose. When individuals feel pressure to act a certain way, they are often motivated to act counter to it. Reactance in this context may be highest when the pressure comes from an authoritative source (e.g. government) or some other untrusted entity viewed as inappropriately interfering with their private property rights. Communication encouraging more natural shorelines may evoke less reactance when it comes from sources that do not have authority over property owners, such as neighbors or volunteers. Learning about unintended negative consequences of providing objectively negative information has allowed us to modify our outreach to avoid alienating the types of property owners we are trying to reach.

Strategies to Motivate Action

We have identified a number of strategies that increase the likelihood that property owners will adopt more natural shorelines. One approach is using messages that emphasize social norms. Particularly when people aren’t sure what to do, they look to others when deciding how to act.  An example might be: “Join your neighbors in adopting a natural shoreline to protect your lake.”

An example of a natural shoreline along a Wisconsin lake.

An example of a natural shoreline along a Wisconsin lake.

Another strategy to consider is emphasizing a stewardship rationale in outreach promoting natural shorelines. Participants with stronger stewardship beliefs have greater willingness to increase their shoreline vegetation. Natural resource educators should work to enhance beliefs that native plants will contribute to positive outcomes they personally care about (e.g. habitat for desired wildlife, aesthetics of their property) and refute beliefs that rain gardens will contribute to outcomes they do not want to occur (e.g. blocking their view, looking “messy,” decreased property value). Similarly, it is important to address property owners’ goals for shoreline landscaping preferences. Having a neatly groomed landscape is important to some property owners and outreach to these people should present restoration solutions that are compatible with a tidy appearance, emphasizing access corridors and aesthetically pleasing native plants.

Finally, our research revealed that while people like to see Canada geese flying overhead, they do not like them congregating and defecating on their lawns and beaches. Informing property owners that more natural vegetation on their shoreline and less mowed lawn and beach prevents unwelcome geese from gathering on their lakeshore was one valuable way to get their attention.

In summary, social science complements natural science. Natural scientists can explain and document threats to our water resources and provide suggestions for what to do to protect them.  But social science is essential to understanding how to get people to actually adopt these practices.



Bret Shaw is an Associate Professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Environmental Communication Specialist for University of Wisconsin Extension.

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