How Psychology is Helping Protect the Great Barrier Reef

August 27, 2018

Editor’s note: This blog was written by behavioral scientists from Behaviour Innovation, a behavior change company in Brisbane, Australia. Read on to learn about their project, Cane Changer, and how it incorporates emotional appeals and social incentives to influence sugar cane farmers and their effect on the world’s largest coral reef.

Many of the major environmental challenges the world is facing today ultimately boil down to the attitudes and behaviors of people. Understanding and applying the science of human behavior is therefore very useful in finding solutions to these challenges.

As noted recently, there is need for a step-change in the way behavioral science is applied to solving complex social and environmental problems.  Much of the focus in applying behavioral insights has thus far had a behavioral economical slant to it. The application of psychological theory has been relativity ‘light touch,’ drawing mainly on an understanding of heuristics and biases.

We suggest that a deeper integration of psychology is critical to the successful application of behavioral science to the many complex problems with which our society is grappling. Presented here is an example of how psychological science has been used in the design and delivery of a behavior change program that helps protect one of the natural wonders of the world: the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

Dubbed Cane Changer, the initiative works with Queensland’s sugarcane farmers to increase the uptake of farming practices that improve water quality running into the GBR. To do this, our team was faced with the challenge of having to analyze the ‘psychological drivers’ of sugarcane farmers and create strategies, based on psychological science, to modify their adoption of best management farming practices.

To do this we drew on Kurt Lewin’s force field theory, whereby we examined the driving and restraining forces of behavior. Lewin’s theory suggests that human behavior is an equilibrium between forces that drive behavior (i.e. benefits) and forces that are working against, or restraining, a behavior (i.e. costs). The best way, according to Lewin, to modify behavior is to reduce the restraining forces and reset the equilibrium.

Our analysis revealed many restraining forces, three of which we share here, each rooted in psychological theory.

  1. Social Identity – Over the years farmers felt that they had been vilified over their connection to the GBR. Their profession was perceived as being under attack. This view was the opposite to how sugarcane growers saw themselves, many of whom identified as environmental stewards with a long history of innovation and practice change. This mismatch between public perception and farmers’ own sense of self created a negative social identity that actively worked against future change.
  2. Learned helplessness – Learned helplessness occurs when an individual is repeatedly exposed to aversive stimuli that they are unable to avoid, thereby leading them to eventually cease trying to change the outcome. For decades sugarcane farmers have modified their practices only to be repeatedly told their efforts were not good enough in the context of the GBR. This ongoing process of farmers being unable to see any difference in outcomes, despite changing their ways, had led to a form of learned helplessness suffocating their desire for future change.
  3. Collective efficacy – Drawing on Bandura’s social learning theory, in particular collective efficacy, we found that a consequence of farmers’ negative social identity combined with feelings of learned helplessness reduced their ability to believe that changing their behavior would result in some meaningful change in the GBR. In other words, they felt regardless of what the industry tried to do differently, nothing would change in the eye of the general public.

Once we understood the restraining forces, we were able to create a suite of behavior change strategies built on psychological science and drawing on evidence of how to modify behaviors across populations. Detailed below are three examples of the strategies we have implemented:

  1. Positive social identity – A primary strategy was to construct a strong, positive social identity for the sugarcane farmers. The centerpiece of this strategy was the slogan, “Setting the Record Straight.” This taps into cane farmers’ desire to be seen in a positive light and provides an opportunity for farmers to be recognized for their efforts to protect the GBR. By acknowledging growers for their efforts and creating a positive social norm, we can circumvent the negative feedback loop acting against a famer’s willingness to engage with change.
  2. Behavior Contracts – We used behavior contracts to get agreements from farmers and government to change. Farmers sign up to the project by completing a Cane Changer Commitment that recognizes the many steps that growers have taken in the past and asks them to commit to continue to change. Government officials are also asked to sign their own commitment to the industry, appreciating farmers for their positive change and stewardship of their land.
  3. Identity Leadership – Our team worked with key leaders that were identified in each of the cane growing districts to drive behavior change from within the social groups. These leaders directed all aspects of the project for their district and were responsible for helping personalize each strategy. Identity leadership theory suggests that by changing the behavior of leaders, who themselves set the group’s agenda and inform their group’s social norms and values, we subsequently modify the behavior of all the group members.

Our initial results are promising. We have seen up to a 1000% increase in the rate of adoption of best management farming practices that are predictive of improved water quality entering the GBR.

Farmers are better off, and the environment is too.

We are only scratching the surface of what’s possible when decades of learning across the psychological sciences are integrated strongly into the design, delivery, and evaluation of behavior change programs. Our challenge it to take what we know, incorporate it into the challenges at hand, and innovate new solutions to entrenched problems.


John Pickering is the CEO and Founder of Behaviour Innovation. Toneya McIntosh is a Senior Behavioral Scientist at Behaviour Innovation.