Faucet Dissonance

Los Angeles, once deemed “the nations water archvillain” has changed it’s ways to significantly reduced its water consumption since the 1970’s despite growing our population just as dramatically. A host of factors from policy to programming influenced the worst-to-first rebirth and now we’re the leaders in cutting-edge conservation innovation. The San Joaquin Valley is fast becoming ‘Blue Tech Valley.’  There Fresno State plays host to clean water technology resources. Just this year Fresno State’s Water Tech Center won a 1.1 million dollar grant to fund local irrigation pilot programs to discover scalable solutions to global farming woes. According toHelle Peterson, director for the Water, Energy, and Technology Center in Fresno, “Just like Silicon Valley was an innovative hot spot that fostered the tech boom, we’re trying to create a similar critical mass of companies in the water technology field to gravitate here.”

And with water supply shrinking as rapidly as demand is growing, that agile hive-mind is exactly what the slow-to-scale water industry needs. According to Danish scientist,Peter Holme Jensen, if we equated the progress of blue tech with big pharma, it would be as if they haven’t invented a new drug in thirty years.” But if Blue Tech Valley can leverage the speed and agility of Silicon Valley, that analogy will be a footnote in a much brighter story.

But how do individuals support the larger picture of industrial change and water conservation? Where do we see ourselves in the planetary balance of supply and demand? In the instance of a billion dollar desalination plant in San Diego – meant to supply fresh water for up to a decade – we don’t see ourselves hanging in the balance at all. When desalination plants go up, they are amid much debate (in some cases ten years), backed with little faith (their efficacy is debatable), and come at a very high cost (see billion dollar remark, above). One issue with desalination is the fact that once plants start supplying fresh water at a higher cost, the demand decreases and the need for them is no longer. Why, then can’t citizens police their own usage in the first place and obviate the billion-dollar boondoggle altogether?

Enter Cognitive Dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance is “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.” For example, knowing that we are draining the Sierra Nevada snow packs that supply our burdened water supply but taking long, hot showers anyway.

A 1992 study by Chris Ann Dickerson at UC Santa Cruz concluded that when a subject supports a particular goal, but their behavior is not consistent with that goal, dissonance could be aroused to change behavior for the better. Using three modes of influence -Informational, dissonance-generating, and persuasive – the study sought to uncover the best way to influence personal behavioral change as related to water conservation. Informational campaigns are largely used to influence attitude, but not behavior. Persuasive campaigns influence attitude and behavior but one who is swayed to easily can always be swayed back into old habits or away from the desired outcome.

“In contrast, dissonance-generated persuasion is highly involving because it entails a challenge to a person’s self-concept. Dissonance would occur, for example, if I believed I was a moral person, and then found myself in the uncomfortable position of having done something I considered immoral. To reduce this dissonance, I would need to rethink, or “justify,” my actions in order to make them more consistent with my self-concept-typically through changes in relevant attitudes or behaviors. This subtle form of self-persuasion is powerful because the individual’s self-concept is directly engaged in the process of attitudinal or behavioral change (Aronson, 1980).”

Subsequent studies have had similar findings about applying cognitive dissonance to behavioral change of conservation habits. 17 years after the Dickerson study, Marc Warsowe even developed the Aqua Pedal for homeowners to circumvent cognitive dissonance and let conservation become as automatic as driving a car.

Pointing out and then resolving resolving internal dissonance is a way to spur behavioral change.  But how can messaging, programs and policy leverage this psycho-social mechanic to relieve the immediate pressure on strained resources in the face of our current climate crisis?

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This question is one I’m constantly asking myself. Whether I’m watching a family member turn on the faucet and leave the room (!), or I see a busy mom who doesn’t notice the plastic toys and litter her child is dropping, or even when I turn on the shower to let the water heat up with no bucket to catch the precious runoff I’m to chilly to take advantage of. I’m working on solutions now and would love to have your input! To discuss, challenge or support this process, please reach out to me at contact@amandajabraham.com or find me on twitter at @amandajabraham, or just look to the right of this article.