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UF research: Norms, not knowledge, drive irrigation habits

Norms beat knowledge when it comes to irrigating homeowners’ lawns, new University of Florida research shows.

For example, science tells us that if you replace at least one-third of the irrigated area of your yard or landscape with non-irrigated beds, you could save an average of 50,000 gallons of water per year.

But homeowners take their irrigation cues from their own personal norms and those of their neighbors, the new research shows.

Laura Warner surveyed 315 Florida homeowners to see what motivates them to replace highly irrigated areas of residential landscapes. In this survey, she specifically wanted to know what would compel homeowners to remove high water-using plants from their landscapes and replace them with conservation in mind.

“People can save an incredible amount of water by changing a portion of their yard, so it no longer needs to be irrigated,” said Warner, a UF/IFAS associate professor of agricultural education and communication. “But some homeowners either don’t know or aren’t swayed by the benefits of reducing water use. Instead, they’re motivated to make these types of changes when they either feel like others around them would approve or have a personal commitment to doing so.”

Here’s one sample question from the survey to measure personal norms: “Tell us on a scale of 1 to 5 how strongly you agree or disagree with this statement: “I feel a personal obligation to eliminate at least one-third of the irrigated area in my yard/landscape in the next 12 months.”

Based on responses, most homeowners said they feel obligated to remove plants and grass that are high-water users.

To coax people into getting rid of water-needy vegetation, people like UF/IFAS Extension agents and government officials should focus on personal norms and social pressure, she said.

Now that researchers have found social and personal norms trigger irrigation habits, what does Warner suggest we do to encourage homeowners to conserve more?

“Based on our findings, we should be using tactics to build social pressure and/or personal obligation,” she said. “Some UF/IFAS Extension agents use innovative methods to do this — like social campaigns to communicate approval for engaging in these types of practices and mindfulness activities to develop more internal connections to water.”