Motor vehicles are ubiquitous in our everyday life, and we live with the risk of accidents in literally every corner. Why is it then that despite the fact that more than half of people killed in car crashes were not restrained at the time of the crash, about 1 in 10 people in the US still do not wear their seatbelts?
This is perhaps due to the human inconsistencies in risk perception and tendencies for risk denial. We overestimate our ability to manage risks and find it easy to rationalise our own risk-taking. We see this not only for things like wearing seatbelts, but even in people who have a real chance of being attacked by tigers!
In a project with our local partners in Indonesia, we sought to nudge farmers in the Leuser ecosystem of North Sumatra to build tiger-proof enclosures (TPE) in an effort to manage human-wildlife conflict and prevent the revenge killings that occur when tigers attack the farmers’ livestock.
You would think that living near tigers that can potentially eat your livestock would prompt you to set up defensive measures, but as the farmers in the Leuser ecosystem have demonstrated during our exploratory field research, such reports are not enough to compel them to build TPEs to protect their livestock.
Barriers to building TPEs
Aside from risk perception, the key barrier we discovered was not behavioural but rather economic; the barbed wire needed to build the TPEs was just too expensive. It can cost up to a full month’s worth of wages for farmers to buy the barbed wire necessary for building a TPE.
To address this structural, economic barrier, it was obvious we had to provide barbed wires to farmers as part of our intervention if we wanted them to build TPEs. We needed to try to overcome other barriers as well. We co-designed group training for farmers for conservation rangers to deliver in collaboration with the local government.
The key difference to previous trainings was that we were framing the building of TPEs not as a conservation activity, but as part of ‘advanced livestock farming’ techniques. We hoped to tap into farmers ambitions, and interest in new technology, rather than rely on their dedication to environmental conservation.
We also wanted to use this training as an opportunity to run a miniature experiment on a regular debate in development: does provision of free goods crowd out motivation? This has been discussed in terms of everything from tuition waivers to mosquito nets.
We randomised our trainings into two groups: the control training participants had to go home and start TPE construction then request free barbed wire, whilst the treatment training participants got free barbed wire upfront.
In theory, the barbed wire is free either way; the only difference is the timing. However, timing, like risk, is something where our decisions are not always rational.
Our partners were, not unreasonably, concerned about giving away free barbed wire to unmotivated farmers. We were more concerned about friction costs of farmers having to ask for barbed wire later.
To make sure the TPE got built, a few weeks after the treatment farmers got their barbed wire, we let them know that rangers would come to check on their TPE and retrieve barbed wire that had not been used. This kind of loss-aversion intervention has been shown to work for a challenge as difficult as improving students test scores, so we were confident it would work here.
Free is not enough
When the time came to inspect all the villages, and speak to farmers, we found that none of the farmers in the control group had built TPEs, and only farmers in villages that were provided barbed wire immediately had built TPEs.
Despite the increase in knowledge about advanced livestock techniques after the training, and having access to free barbed wire, the farmers in the control group displayed an aversion to effort: even the act of requesting free barbed wire constitutes an effort that deters farmers from building TPEs.
On the other hand reducing the effort required to perform a behaviour by providing the barbed wire immediately, combined with applying the theory of loss aversion using the deadline, encouraged farmers in intervention villages to build TPEs.
How does BIT apply behavioural insights to conservation challenges?
BIT is increasingly looking to try and use behavioural insights to solve conservation challenges, from illegal wildlife trafficking in China to recycling in Bhutan. We have documented our approach in greater detail in our report with RARE, but a key part is recognising that the primary obstacle is not necessarily “motivation to protect the environment”.
In our work in Leuser, we did not focus at all on making environmental arguments to farmers. In fact, we specifically partnered with local government offices responsible for animal husbandry to try and distance our interventions from the conservation sector.
This is because behavioural science shows consistently that a simplified model of decision-making, where attitude or preference leads inevitably to action, conceals a far more complex reality where many small environmental factors have an outsized impact.
Focusing exclusively on raising motivation can blind us to other obstacles, whether the seemingly tiny hassle of remembering to message the ranger for the free barbed wire, or the ‘elephant in the room’ that farmers simply couldn’t afford barbed wire themselves. This helps us develop an intervention with our local partners that helped get many more TPE built.
Incidentally, reducing human-animal conflict in terms of elephants is a whole different challenge – as farmers told us, because elephants will figure out your defences pretty quickly if it stands between them and a good lunch. This and similar challenges are exactly the kind of problems that BIT hopes to apply behavioural science to in the future.