Nudges Alone Won’t Save Nemo: Conservation in the Great Barrier Reef

This article is part of our special issue “Nudge Turns 10,” which explores the intersection of behavioral science and public policy. View the complete issue here.

The past decade has shown just how powerful behavioral science can be in changing human behavior.

Take nudges, for example: The evidence supporting their use is compelling and growing by the month.

However, would nudges be enough if we had to apply behavioral science to a more complex problem? A problem that hasn’t yet been fully studied nor understood and seemingly falls outside the scope of a nudge-based solution?

Many of the grand challenges society is grappling with would likely meet the definition of a complex problem. This would include such problems as obesity, social disadvantage, climate change, mental health and well-being, among many others.

Nudges do their job well, but behavioral science can and should aspire to more. In the next decade, let’s acknowledge that complex problems can benefit from more holistic applications of behavioral science.

Here, in a project I participated in to preserve the Great Barrier Reef, is an example of how.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system. Home to over a thousand species of fish in an area roughly the size of Germany, the Reef is worth an estimated AU$6 billion ($4.4 billion USD) to the Australian economy each year.

How do you apply behavioral science to a complex environmental problem?

The first and most significant threat to its existence is climate change, which leads to rising sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, altered weather patterns and rising sea levels. Recent evidence indicates this threat is growing; in the past 24 months, there have been two mass bleaching events, an early stage of coral death when the coral expels the algae that give it vibrant color. Global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are needed to mitigate this issue.

The second threat is polluted water running into the reef from adjacent catchments along the Queensland coastline. Evidence indicates there are many contributing factors to water quality, including Queensland’s cane farms, where fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides can escape the land and enter reef catchments, the water systems that drain into the Reef’s coastal waters.

In other words, when it comes to protecting the Reef, we are dealing with an issue of human behavior, not just an environmental issue. Helping Queensland’s cane farmers adopt practices that are known to improve water quality will not only buffer the reef from immediate threats but also give it a better long-term outlook.

Accordingly, the Queensland Government is turning to behavioral science. A recent report recommended a behavioral science strategy that works with cane farmers to accelerate the uptake of the industry’s best management farming program.

The recommendation materialized into a project, dubbed Cane Changer, which commenced in 2017 and continues to be implemented today.

Image courtesy of John Pickering.

How do you apply behavioral science to a complex environmental problem?

Cane Changer adopts a holistic approach that simultaneously draws on multiple insights from behavioral science. The project looks beyond the fundamentals of heuristics and biases and into the way behavior unfolds in a system of influences, including the individual farmer, their social group and their geopolitical system.

To do this, we analyzed the problem using Kurt Lewin’s force field theory. This theory views human behavior as the balance of driving and restraining forces, whereby change occurs when the equilibrium balancing the forces is disrupted.

Lewin’s theory, broadly interpreted, suggests that an effective way to change behavior is to diminish those things that are working against a particular behavior (restraining forces), rather than focusing on the positives (driving forces). One possible restraining force for cane farmers might be the financial costs associated with transitioning to the new farming practice; whereas a potential driving force might be the perceived environmental benefits associated with adopting a new farming practice.

As it turns out, neither perceived environmental benefits nor costs were necessarily as important as some might think.

Our analysis revealed two major restraining forces.

The first restraining force was that farmers were reluctant to adopt the best management practice system because signing up threatened their social identity.

For the farmers, being asked to complete the best management farming program was, in effect, asking them to acknowledge they had been doing the wrong thing.

The cane farmers perceived that by prompting them to change their ways, governments and scientists alike had taken to “naming and shaming” them, painting them as villains of the Reef and environmental vandals.

Yet, in speaking with the farmers themselves, it became apparent they possessed the opposite view. They see themselves as environmental stewards with a proud history of adapting to change and modifying how they farm.

For the farmers, being asked to complete the best management farming program was, in effect, asking them to acknowledge they had been doing the wrong thing; that they were failed farmers.

Their social identity was being threatened.

The second restraining force was farmers failing to maintain written records. Written records are essential for accreditation in best management farming practice and key to improving water quality running out to the Reef. However, keeping written records is not necessarily standard practice.

Our analysis showed that those farmers who do start keeping written records tend to modify their farming practices. For instance, farmers who keep records also tend to adopt other practices that benefit the Reef. This finding is consistent with existing research indicating that self-monitoring of one’s behavior is an effective behavioral change strategy in its own right.

Image courtesy of John Pickering.

Using a holistic approach to behavioral science

To combat the restraining forces, we created 11 behavior change strategies—all of which were designed to improve accreditation rates in the best management farming program.

One of the strategies was to construct a strong positive social identity for the cane farmers. The primary vehicles to achieve this came in the form of a slogan, “Setting the Record Straight”. Setting the Record Straight taps into cane farmers’ desire to be seen in a positive light and be recognized for their efforts to protect the Reef.

By setting the record straight, farmers are agreeing to keep written records and become accredited in the best management farming program. Accreditation in the program provides testament to farmers’ positive attitude towards the Reef and evidence that they are doing the right thing. The more farmers that become accredited, the more positive the industry’s identity becomes, especially towards the Reef.

The slogan has not only become the centerpiece of the Cane Changer project, but is now widely used across the industry and frequently observed in materials and communications published by industry bodies and collaborators.

A second strategy targeted one of the system-level restraining forces identified in the analysis. Farmers were acutely attuned to the attitudes and behaviors of government and felt unfairly persecuted, further entrenching their reluctance to engage with best management programs.

The strategy, therefore, was to stem the negativity directed towards the farmers, with the hope that it would help alleviate the tit-for-tat conflict spiral that was working against the change process.

To achieve this, the State Environment Minister signed a behavior contract to recognize the cane farmers for their efforts to change and their environmental stewardship. Farmers also signed their own contract–signaling their commitment to change. In this way, change was for everyone, not just the farmers.

The acclaim for the farmers from politicians also acts as a positive reinforcement loop, prompting further change and maintenance of improved farming practices.

Findings and lessons learned so far

The project is still a work in progress but the emerging results are promising. In June 2016, when the project commenced, there were 65 farmers in the project’s catchments accredited in the best management program—a program that had existed for four years. There are now over 200 cane farmers accredited in the past 18 months. These changes in accreditation are attributable to a suite of activities occurring in the area, but when compared to non-Cane Changer areas, the rate of change is notable, as depicted in the figure below.


Rates of Best Management Practice accreditation by sugar cane region.

#1: Randomized Controlled Trials are useful, but not always viable when it comes to complex problems. Dealing with complex behavioral problems at scale means that designs such as RCTs aren’t always viable. Randomization to condition might be impractical, or an alternate design is more suitable. Designing projects at scale from the outset might provide a more useful platform for tackling complex problems through behavioral science. Behavior change programs can then be seen as iterative experiments that continuously adapt to changing conditions, circumstances and evidence. As a field, we know so much about human behavior. The challenge is to innovate in program design and evaluation to achieve population change.

#2: Simplicity is powerful. Complex problems might require a sophisticated response, but sophistication does not come at the expense of simplicity. Positive reinforcement, behavioral contracts, and social norms are all very powerful. Nudges also are an example of a simple, yet very powerful tool, particularly when implemented in a system of change strategies.

#3: One of our field’s greatest challenges is applying behavioral science creatively. Blending theory, evidence, and our imagination is the most important thing we need to do to progress in many areas of international concern—including the long-term protection of the Great Barrier Reef.