Environment & Science

Drought: The psychology of why some people aren't saving water

California officials are urging every one to help save water. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)
California officials are urging every one to help save water. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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A new Field Poll finds the vast majority of Californians think the drought is a serious problem, but many say they can't do more to save water.

Nearly two-thirds of those polled agreed that water agencies should be forced to cut back consumption by an average of 25 percent.

However, 44 percent said it would be hard for them personally to make more of a sacrifice.

This may seem like somewhat of a contradiction, but social scientists say it is to be expected.

"It makes perfect sense to me," said Cameron Brick, a PhD Candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"I think that's in agreement with a lot of things we see about individual behavior."

Brick says past research shows that when humans are faced with massive challenges, they often feel their individual actions won’t make a difference.

It’s called “low self efficacy” and it's also behind why people feel their vote doesn't matter or why they think it's impossible to eat healthier or lose weight.

Brick says people look at a big problem and make a mental calculation about what it would take to solve.

Then, they often decide that nothing they could do would make enough of a dent to be worth the effort.

"If we don’t feel like we have very much power over it, then we just aren’t going to engage," Brick explained.

He added that people also are reluctant to do their part if they feel that others are getting away with doing little or nothing at all.

That might explain why two-thirds of those surveyed in the Field Poll pointed fingers elsewhere saying that  farmers should do more to cut water use.

There is hope though.

As social creatures, humans don't like looking lazy and selfish. Brick says water agencies could capitalize on this by making individual water saving efforts more public.

Some agencies already do this by showing neighbors how their usage stacks up to those around them. This approach has helped those neighborhoods save more water, said Brick.

He also recommends framing the drought as a local issue, one that affects people on the scale of their town or neighborhood rather than their state or region.

"Tell people what the local costs and changes will be (and make them look imminent) if we do nothing, and show people how to get involved in their own community," he suggested.