Conservation Corner: Individual responsibility is key


Conservation corner - summer 2005

I came across a study by an American behavioural researcher who wanted to find out if people act more responsibly in groups or as individuals.

Subjects were asked to walk alone down a deserted street where they encountered a woman laying on the sidewalk asking for help. In almost 90 per cent of cases, the subject stopped to help the woman. Other subjects walked down the same street where they encountered the same woman, only this time the street was crowded with other people. In these cases, subjects stopped to help less than 20 per cent of the time.

The researcher concluded that individuals are more likely to take action when they feel some personal responsibility to help. In large groups, however, the sense of responsibility is “diffused” among the group. In other words, when there is a problem, most people expect that someone else will take care of it.

This attitude is prevalent when it comes to water conservation. The “problem” may be decreasing supply, or the spiraling cost of infrastructure. But because the problem is spread among the entire customer base, individuals may not believe their actions are part of the solution.

That’s why it is so important to stress personal accountability when promoting water conservation to individual customers. Here’s an example of how that might work. This summer, the City of Kelowna will test a new message on water bills to high water users. The bills will include graphs that show the customer’s water consumption compared to the average consumption of their street, and the average consumption in their area. The idea is to make the customers feel some personal responsibility for their high water use and to take some action to lower it.

For some customers the graphs will be titled, “Comparison of Your Water Consumption.” For others the title will be, “Statement of Your Environmental Impact.” It will be interesting to see which title (if any) generates the most response. I’ll let you know what we discover.

Working directly with individual water customers takes time and effort. But in the long run, only when those customers feel some personal responsibility for their water use will they change their actions. Without that sense of personal responsibility, they’ll just assume that “someone else” will conserve water.


By Neal Klassen, BCWWA “Watermark” contributor


Posted January 2006

Originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of Watermark Magazine, the official publication of the British Columbia Water & Waste Association (BCWWA).

For more information contact Neal Klassen at