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A research project between TYS and the University of Turku encouraged to save water

If you have lived in Aitiopaikka, Haliskylä or Yo-talo during the previous 12 months, you may have noticed that you have received emails regarding water consumption. These messages were related to a research project of the University of Turku and the Turku Student Village Foundation, which is based on questions that go far beyond students’ water use.

The world is full of problems for which experts would have solutions but which are difficult to solve because the solutions require large crowds to change their behaviour. For example, during the corona pandemic, experts have made recommendations on a wide range of hygiene and containment measures, and the big question has been how to get people to act on these recommendations. Longer-term objectives in which individual behaviour is key include mitigating climate change and promoting public health.

Psychological research has shown that the mere sharing of information rarely causes large masses of people to change their behaviour, and in a democratic society there is justifiably a high threshold for using laws that dictate people to act in a certain way under threat of punishment. Therefore, there is a great need for ways to control human behaviour while maintaining individual freedom of choice.

One such means is nudge, presented by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book “Nudge:  Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness” in 2008. In 2017, Thaler won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work and Sunstein was awarded the “Nobel Prize in Psychology,” the Holberg Prize.

Nudge’s idea is based on the psychology of decision making. People make a huge number of choices during the day and psychological research has shown that most of these choices are hardly considered but are made quickly using simple mental heuristics, in day-to-day language based on emotion, intuition or routine. When a person makes such choices, the choices are strongly influenced by the way the options are presented. For example, when shopping, people’s purchasing decisions are influenced by how the products are displayed, and by modifying the presentation of the products, shoppers can be directed to favour certain products.

Environmental features that affect people’s choices are called choice architecture and nudge is a research-based change in choice architecture that seeks to increase the number of certain types of choices by making them easier, more visible, or more emotionally pleasing. For example, in lunch restaurants, simply increasing the number of vegetarian options increased the consumption of vegetarian food by 15% and thus acted as a promoter of a healthy diet and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Many commercial entities seek to influence people’s behaviour by modifying the choice architecture. However, nudges differ from marketing in that they must adhere to two ethical principles: Nudges are meant to guide people toward objectives that are beneficial to them, and they should allow the person being targeted today to ignore a nudge and act as they wish.

Nudges have aroused a lot of interest in the world and they have been used at the state level in many countries. However, scientific research of nudges is still in its infancy, and in Finland the Department of Psychology of the University of Turku held a first course in 2019 on the use of nudges for behaviour control. The course eventually progressed to a research project in which the students, under the guidance of psychology researchers Nils Sandman and Jarno Tuominen, came up with a practical nudge, the functionality of which was studied scientifically.

This project was carried out together with the Turku Student Village Foundation and eventually resulted in a nudge based on emotional messages aimed at reducing water consumption. Water consumption is something that everyone can influence through their own activities, and saving water reduces energy consumption associated with water treatment, which in turn saves the environment as well as money. At TYS, tenants do not pay water charges, but this does not mean that part of the rent will not result in water-related costs. There are also many areas of the world where there is a shortage of water and all water saving techniques are very necessary in such places.

From the fall of 2019 to the summer of 2020, the selected apartments received emails comparing their water consumption to the average consumption of the entire house – tenants received information about how much water they consumed compared to their neighbours and also a small emotional incentive to save water: An emoji ranging from happy to sad. A similar nudge has reduced water consumption in America and Singapore in previous studies.

As is often the case in longitudinal research, the world did not stay still during the project but the spring 2020 pandemic changed the reality of student housing while confusing the original plan of the research. Despite this, the collection of data was completed in the summer and the results are currently being analysed. Preliminarily, it seems that the happy and sad drops of water had the right, but very little effect on Turku students. The project was the first nudge research in Turku, and although the impact was not large, much was learned from the study about the implementation of nudge, and more similar field trials are planned in the future.

Postdoctoral Researcher Nils Sandman,
University of Turku