To Scale Behavior Change: Target Early Adopters, Then Leverage Social Proof and Social Pressure

Smallholder farmers—and the rural communities that depend on them—are extremely vulnerable to climate change. The transition to more sustainable agricultural practices is vital to improve productivity and resilience while decreasing farm-related emissions. But despite the urgency, changing the behavior of small-scale farmers remains an uphill battle. Farming is a financially precarious profession, which makes most farmers reluctant to experiment with methods that introduce even more uncertainty into their already uncertain livelihoods

Take Colombian farmer Pablo Cruz, who doesn’t hold back when discussing what it takes to grow his lettuces. Composting, he told us, was more sustainable, but also difficult and time consuming. Chemical inputs guaranteed productivity, but increased pests. Like many other farmers, Pablo (whose name we’ve changed) was initially skeptical about making the switch to more sustainable agricultural practices. “Chemicals poison food, but people want everything easy and want to see those big lettuces. If you go organic, the lettuces don’t grow. Can a plant even grow without chemical attention?”

Improving the adoption rates for new farming technologies has been a challenge since the onset of agricultural extension training programs in the ’50s. Strategies for designing effective change are still far too reliant on traditional levers like material incentives (“pay them”), rules and regulations (“stop them”), and information (“tell them”). In Colombia’s Norte de Santander department, where Pablo lives and farms, these strategies don’t work at the scale needed for meaningful change. While they might reach some farmers already eager to adopt new practices, many more are reluctant to approach outsider NGOs or adopt the latest technological innovations.

Strategies for designing effective change are still far too reliant on traditional levers like material incentives (“pay them”), rules and regulations (“stop them”), and information (“tell them”).

Instead of relying on these traditional levers of behavior change, the organization Rare has developed Lands for Life, a program focused on changing the social norms around farming. While that might sound simple, in this high-stakes context, changing farmers’ norms and behavior is anything but. We, a behavior scientist and a cultural anthropologist, respectively, are part of the project’s team. We’ve been working to leverage a growing group of norm bearers into spreading the adoption of sustainable practices through words and actions. Based on our results, we believe that snowballing early success stories into community-level norms could be a useful tool to help promote positive behavioral changes in other information-ambiguous, high-stakes environments.

One of Lands for Life’s new norm bearers is the previously skeptical Pablo. Now a self-assured innovador (innovator in Spanish), he shares composting tips and photo updates on his organic vegetables over the project’s WhatsApp group, a medium that has grown more popular among local producers during the COVID-19 lockdown. His co-innovadores have even begun reporting interest from curious neighbors.

When in doubt, farmers stick to what they know. But what happens when escalating climate variability means that what farmers know no longer works? Our qualitative research found that farmers made decisions based on two variables: social proof and social pressure. Farmers adopt new techniques more readily if they can observe other farmers’ successful adoption of the same (i.e., social proof) or if they believe that the use of such techniques is expected of them (i.e., social pressure).

When in doubt, farmers stick to what they know. But what happens when escalating climate variability means that what farmers know no longer works?

This transformation from reluctance to adoption by some, followed by curiosity and adoption by many, is at the heart of Lands for Life’s behavior change program. By snowballing early social proof into social pressure, we are already seeing sustainable practices spread among smallholder farmers in northeastern Colombia. Each step of the process builds on the previous one, tailored to reach farmers based on their degree of resistance to innovation.

Previous efforts to change behavior failed because they didn’t incorporate either of these social variables that affect how farmers make decisions. Historically, sustainable agriculture programs in the region would recruit a handful of curious farmers who were open to trying new practices. The benefits of said practices, however, remained uncertain for nonadopters, and slowly became uncertain even for early adopters as they saw no one else following suit. In the absence of widespread norm change, practices petered out: a common story in high-ambiguity, high-risk situations.

Lands for Life solved this complex behavioral problem by segmenting Colombian farmers along a resistance-to-ambiguity continuum, and then targeting and reaching each of the resulting subgroups at different stages of our program. Moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach that often governs these programs, we approach low-, moderate-, and high-resistance farmers (LRFs, MRFs, and HRFs) in different ways. Specifically, our segmentation variable is the amount of evidence—how certain farmers have to feel—before trying something new.

Low-resistance farmers—like Pablo Cruz turned out to be, despite his initial wariness—require minimal evidence to adopt a new practice. They are easily convinced and want to learn new ways of doing things. Moderate-resistance farmers require a bit more convincing: before trialing practices themselves, they want to know that others have tested and succeeded. Finally, high-resistance farmers, no matter the strength of the social proof, remain unconvinced or find change simply not worth the hassle. Even when they’re confident of the outcome of adopted behaviors, they need an additional nudge in the form of widespread community expectation to farm sustainably. That nudge can come in the form of positive social recognition for farmers who transition away from agrochemical overuse (or social stigma for those who keep using practices that can harm neighboring farms).  

So how did we leverage the above to enact long-lasting behavior change?

First, we recruited low-resistance farmers and got them to successfully adopt three simple practices. Doing so earned them the title of innovador. These farmers had to learn to irrigate and fertilize according to their specific needs and to efficiently make use of compost on their farm. Then, we leveraged the social proof created by these early innovadores’ success to encourage adoption in moderate-resistance populations. LRFs witness meaningful impacts on their production and on nearby wild plants and animals, which makes it easier for them to want to publicly commit to maintaining (and expanding) these practices. Then, peer-to-peer workshops and radio interviews helped MRF friends and neighbors feel more confident following suit.

Finally, with LRFs and MRFs becoming innovadores in growing numbers, we leveraged their prevalence and role in the community to generate the expectation that all farmers cultivate sustainably. Here, community-wide events and social marketing efforts all promote a simple message: a healthy community is one that farms sustainably. And, if you chose not to, your reputation is at stake. If pests spread from one HRF’s unsustainable farm to an innovador’s sustainable one, or if an HRF’s continued pesticide use decreases the population of pollinators for all other farmers in the area, people will talk, shame and even ostracize the recalcitrant HRF. As the norm of sustainability grows and spreads, so too does its ability to self-enforce.

We can visualize this as a three-phased timeline: a stepwise, iterative program that ultimately reaches even the high-resistance farmers that previous efforts never could.

We meet farmers where they’re at—enthusiastic, doubtful, or suspicious—and create self-regulating mechanisms for community-owned change.

Already, farmers previously unassociated with our on-the-ground partner are approaching us to be part of the movement. As we also expected, our early analysis reveals that those farmers we work with are more likely to be composting, irrigating, and fertilizing sustainably if they know others in their community are doing it too. It will take many more months, if not years (each harvest takes about four months) to measure the full impact of our behaviorally informed snowball strategy, but we do know we are reaching farmers that previous efforts in the area had failed to.

Behavioral science interventions often remain tethered to a one-size-fits-all approach. But in a high-risk environment with a nonhomogenous population (which describes many, if not all, intervention contexts), different strategies are needed. We met this challenge by using the combined levers of social proof and social pressure to change norms around sustainable farming. Through Lands for Life, we meet farmers where they’re at—enthusiastic, doubtful, or suspicious—and create self-regulating mechanisms for community-owned change.

Acknowledgements: The authors thank Giancarlo Chiappe, Kevin Green, and Dr. Erik Thulin for their assistance and feedback.