Scaling behaviour change
From a blog by Behavioural Scientist
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 behaviour 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 C, 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 was initially sceptical 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. 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.
Instead of relying on these traditional levers of behaviour 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 behaviour is anything but. What is promising is leveraging a growing group of 'new normal' bearers into spreading the adoption of sustainable practices through words and actions.
Based on the results, we believe that snowballing early success stories into community-level norms could be a useful tool to help promote positive behavioural changes in other information-ambiguous, high-stakes environments.
One of Lands for Life’s new norm bearers is the previously sceptical Pablo. 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. 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).
This transformation from reluctance to adoption by some, followed by curiosity and adoption by many, is at the heart of Lands for Life’s behaviour change program. By snowballing early social proof into social pressure, they are already seeing sustainable practices spread among smallholder farmers in north-eastern 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 behaviour failed because they didn’t incorporate either of these social variables that affect how farmers make decisions. 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 behavioural 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 their program. Moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach that often governs these programs, they approach low-, moderate-, and high-resistance farmers (LRFs, MRFs, and HRFs) in different ways. Specifically, the segmentation variable is the amount of evidence—how certain farmers have to feel—before trying something new.
Low-resistance farmers 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 trialling 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 behaviours, 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 neighbouring farms).
So how did Lands for Life leverage the above to enact long-lasting behaviour change?
First, they recruited low-resistance farmers and got them to successfully adopt three simple practices. Doing so earned them the title of Innovator. 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, they leveraged the social proof created by these early Innovators’ 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 neighbours feel more confident following suit.
Finally, with LRFs and MRFs becoming Innovators in growing numbers, they 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 Innovator’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.
It will take many more months, if not years (each harvest takes about four months) to measure the full impact of this behaviourally informed snowball strategy, but Lands for Life do know they are reaching farmers that previous efforts in the area had failed to.
Read the full article here.
How can this approach be used to change and scale behaviours we would like to see?
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