Social relations have a strong influence on our behaviour. We often learn new things and change our views and behaviours through discussion with or observation of others—our neighbours, friends, family, and colleagues.
Sometimes the opposite happens, and we resist change because we worry about what others will think. Consider how wearing face masks has become the norm in many public places during the COVID-19 pandemic: many people wear them because they want to protect others or avoid disapproval.
Social scientists have made a lot of progress understanding how information, opinions, and behaviours spread (or don’t) through social groups. This insight is being used by marketers, public health officials, and many others to design more effective campaigns and communications. Yet, although conservationists increasingly draw on behavioural science, little research has been done about the role of social relations in shaping conservation behaviours.
I wanted to explore this in northern Cambodia, where birds like the giant ibis (Thaumatibis gigantea) are being threatened by pesticides contaminating the water ponds on which they rely throughout the dry season. My colleagues and I worked with partners in government, with community leaders, and with the Wildlife Conservation Society, to understand this issue and then designed a campaign to reduce pesticide pollution.
Our prior research showed us that many residents were unhappy with the pollution, which was caused by a minority of careless locals, but that they felt powerless to act and were worried about creating conflict. Our campaign thus focused on promoting a hotline that can be used to report pollution. We organised a community event with uplifting videos and speeches from respected villagers, and distributed materials with the phone number printed.
We used this event to conduct an experiment. First, we interviewed all 400 residents of one village and asked them about their social relations—who they spend time talking with. We then asked them questions about their intentions to report pollution, measuring willingness on a 10-point scale. We invited 40 people to attend our event. Two weeks later, we followed up with another village-wide survey to see who had learned about the campaign and if intentions to report pollution had changed, which we repeated again after six months.
We found that information about the campaign spread far and wide. After six months, at least 141 people knew details of the campaign and hotline. When we looked at their social relations, statistical models showed that people were twice as likely to know about the campaign if they lived with someone who also knew about it. Word of mouth was clearly important for spreading information.
Those who attended the event had also become more willing to report pollution, suggesting that the campaign was persuasive. Perhaps surprisingly, after two weeks, many people who did not attend had also become more willing to report pollution. Statistical models showed us that knowledge about the campaign did not influence people’s willingness. Instead, social influences were important, as people became more willing if their social relations were also more willing. But, after six months, the same influences had pushed average levels of willingness back to pre-campaign levels.
These results paint a complex picture, but they suggest that social influences are critical for changing conservation behaviour and are more important than spreading information. Just as with wearing a face mask, an individual’s willingness to report pollution depended strongly on what their social relations said and did. Eventually, villagers may have felt that reporting pollution was too socially risky if many of their friends and relatives weren’t also supportive of this action.
Conservationists can take this into consideration, drawing on proven strategies from other disciplines, such as using information about social relations to target key influencers in a community. We simulated such a strategy using our data and found that this is likely to be effective in Cambodia too. But this data can often be challenging and expensive to collect in conservation settings. For larger programmes that operate across many communities, conducting research on social relations in a small number of villages could help generate insights that apply across the programme. Cheaper and rougher methods, such as consulting local experts or discussions with community members, could still help to define important social relations, identify influential individuals, or understand relevant social groupings.
Keeping these questions in mind could help conservation campaigns overcome resistance, to instead be embraced by communities, and to generate new social norms. Campaigns can work with influential members of the community or encourage conservation-minded community members to share and discuss their motivations with others. As attitudes and behaviours shift in some parts of a community, campaigns will need to adapt to support and enable these groups as they influence other more resistant groups. Taking a social relations perspective means recognising that people are the greatest resource for conservation.