Saving Water: The Potential Impact of Behavior Analysis

By Julia Fiebig, PhD, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Recently, I was driving from Los Angeles to my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s an easy drive once you get through LA traffic, the long, straight stretch of road providing little distraction beyond standard freeway signs and the occasional billboard.  I’ve made the trip often in the last 10 years and noticeable, on this last trip, were the acres of parched farmland bordering the freeway and frequent public service announcement signs with messages like, “serious drought, help save water” or “brown is the new green, do your part to conserve water” and hand-painted signs reading, “pray for rain”, “food grows where water flows”, or “no water, no jobs.” The California drought has been ongoing for four years and though there has been controversy about how to address diminishing water resources and controversy over the cause of the drought, there does seem to be consensus that the supply of water needed to maintain familiar standards of living far exceeds the water available. In April of this year, California Governor Jerry Brown mandated substantial water restrictions across the state that included the need for a 25% reduction in urban water usage, improved enforcement, streamlined government response, and investment in water efficient technology.  All of these areas involve a call for significant behavior change related to water conservation , improved infrastructure and process, and development and application of new technologies, and with those a need for the identification of the most environmentally relevant behaviors (ERBs) and a plan for those ERBs to occur across the population.

The issue of water scarcity and the need for more water efficient infrastructure, as well as the causes of diminishing water resources, are by no means singular to California.  Many regions in the world, such as China, India, and Syria, have been in the midst of significant droughts. Climate experts have reported that the effects of climate change are likely to further exacerbate water scarcity on regional and global levels (Schewe et al.,2014) and that temperature changes are expected to decrease water resources and increase the percent of the population living with extreme water scarcity.  Even in regions where diminishing water resources may not currently be an immediate concern, the global effects of water scarcity extend to agricultural decline, food scarcity, and in some regions contribute to forced migration, economic ramifications, and ultimately, general social unrest, making this an issue of global concern. With these wide-ranging effects come a significant need and opportunity for behavioral scientists and practitioners to work in collaboration with other disciplines to influence behaviors and systems that improve stewardship of environmental resources and help individuals and communities adapt to changing conditions.

The behavioral literature has at least two examples of interventions addressing environmentally relevant behaviors dating to the 1970’s and 1980’s (Heward & Chance, 2010), however, work in this area did not gain traction in the following decades. Historically, the ratio of applications of behavior analysis to climate change issues has not matched the magnitude of the issues and the urgency with which they need to be addressed on a wider scale.  In 2010, Drs William Heward and Paul Chance co-edited a special edition of The Behavior Analyst titled “The Human Response to Climate Change:Ideas from Behavior Analysis” and there has been continued emerging interest in sustainability and applications of behavior analysis to environmentally relevant behaviors.  Many approaches to addressing climate change and resource sustainability emphasize development of technologies that help conserve and/or reuse resources.  Technological innovations are an exciting and needed component of addressing how human beings use resources, however, there is still room for significant impact on consumption of resources through interventions addressing human behavior.

One of the aims of behavioral science is to increase the effectiveness with which humans behave in context of their environment to improve conditions and reduce potential suffering. As with any topic to which the behavioral scientist applies their science, they must educate themselves and ideally collaborate with individuals who offer expertise in new areas. In the case of California, the state’s water supply agencies are responsible for establishing how to accomplish a 25% reduction in water usage and coming up with systems for monitoring compliance with homeowners, businesses, farms, and other stakeholders. In the process of establishing systems and contingencies for reducing water consumption, there is an opportunity for those of us working in the behavioral sciences to offer our skills and knowledge to collaborate with these agencies on the design of systems and interventions.  

Please share how water scarcity and access is relevant for you in the comments below and what ideas you have or actions you have taken to create more sustainable practices in your community.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Heward, W., L. &  Chance, P., (Guest Eds). (2010). Special Section: The human response to climate change: Ideas from behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 33, 145-206.

Schewe, J., Heinke, J., Gerten, D., Haddeland, I.,  Arnell, N. W., Clarke, D. B., Dankers, R., Eisnerg, S., Feketeh, B. M., Colón-Gonzálezi, F. J., Gosling, S. N., Kim, H., Liu, X., Masakim, Y., Portmannn, F. T., Satoh, Y., Stack, T., Tang, Q., Wadar, Y., Wissers, D., Albrecht, T., Frieler, K., Piontek, F., Warszawskia, L., & Kabatt, P. (2014). Multimodel assessment of water scarcity under climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, 11(9), 3245-3250.

Julia FiebigJulia H. Fiebig, PhD, BCBA was inspired to begin a career in behavior analysis in 1998 as a music student interested in the influence of learned practice of an art on perception of talent. While she still pursues music and writing, her education in behavior analysis shaped other interests and she now consults in organizational, clinical, and educational settings. She is committed to work related to organizational and community sustainability, leadership, consensus-based community practices, and global climate change issues. She is a faculty member in the Applied Behavior Analysis department at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and currently serves as the chair for ABAI’s Behavior Analysis for Sustainable Societies (BASS) special interest group. Julia is also experienced and passionate about her work facilitating international summer camps with the aim of teaching young people to have better human relations and engage in responsible community living. You can contact her at [email protected].

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