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Behaviour change measures in conservation

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Behaviour change measures are used in fields such as public health, but have only recently begun to be more widely adopted in conservation. There are a wide range of different approaches that are applicable to tackle environmental issues, but they require a theoretical understanding of decision-making processes and rigorous evaluation.

We’re the problem

The root causes of many conservation issues can be linked to the choices we make as humans. Whether it’s driving to work instead of taking the bus, or flushing unused medications down the toilet instead of returning them to a pharmacist, tackling some of our biggest environmental challenges requires changing human behaviours, in the UK and globally.

Conservationists have for too long relied on awareness-raising as a method of changing behaviour. The assumption is that all we lack is knowledge: if people just knew that their behaviours were negatively affecting the environment surely they would change them? Unfortunately, this is an overly simplistic view. Knowledge is only one determinant of behaviour amongst many. Multiple behaviour change models have been developed by psychologists and economists which illustrate this. See for example the Model of Goal-Directed Behaviour (MGB)1, one composite view of the wealth of research that has been undertaken into decision making. Other matters such as past behaviour, emotions, attitudes, social norms and perceived behavioural control also affect the choices we make, and need to be considered when designing campaigns aimed at changing behaviours.

Model of goal-directed behaviour

There are many different approaches to behaviour change, from education to enforcement. There are three broad categories:

  • targeting conscious decision-making though social marketing;
  • taking advantage of the prompts and influences we use automatically in daily life (colloquially known as “nudging”); and
  • changing the wider social and economic structures in which we make choices.

Social marketing

Social marketing uses marketing concepts to influence behaviours that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good. One well-known social marketing campaign in the UK is Change4Life, a national campaign to reduce obesity, and the conservation non-profit organisation Rare frequently uses social marketing methods in their Rare pride campaigns to change social norms and behaviours relating to wildlife  conservation outcomes by inspiring pride in local communities. Communication and awareness-raising campaigns are unlikely to be classified as social marketing, which begins with formative research to identify target consumers and includes the four elements of the marketing mix: Product, Place, Price, Promote.2 The uniqueness of social marketing lies in its focus on behaviour change throughout the design and evaluation phases. The goal is to create attractive ideas and choices for people that promote the desired behaviour and tackle any barriers, whether that is eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day or choosing to purchase synthetic bear bile in the Chinese medicine trade. Consistent use of audience research, from pilot studies to monitoring results, plays an important role, and segmentation (distinguishing groups of people by their main values and key behaviours) saves resources by allowing practitioners to target the priority audiences.

Change4Life logo

Case study: The campaign to protect the Sichuan golden snubnosed monkey DeWan et al (2013) conducted a social marketing campaign in China with the aim of encouraging villagers to switch to fuel efficient stoves, protecting forest habitat in the Yuhe Nature reserve where the endangered golden snub-nosed monkey lives. Following significant increases in knowledge, attitudes, and interpersonal communication, preliminary results showed a 23.7% reduction in tree felling in areas where over half the community adopted the new technology, as well as a large decrease in consumption and gathering time for the villagers.

This focus on drivers of behaviour is a key aspect of behaviour change measures. It is only by understanding why people behave as they do that we may be able to alter their behaviours. For example, understanding the specific motivations behind the use of illegal wildlife products allows the design of targeted demand reduction campaigns. This was the theory behind the noted social marketing Chi Campaign, a collaboration between TRAFFIC and Save The Rhino which targets wealthy urban men aged 35-50 in Viet Nam. They are believed to be the key consumers of rhino horn in Viet Nam, used as a simultaneous detoxifier and status enhancer. As the status associated with rhino horn comes in part from the illegal, expensive and rare nature of it, traditional awareness-raising campaigns which highlight the plight of the endangered rhino to engender empathy could actually backfire and exacerbate the scale of consumption by reinforcing rhino horn as a status symbol.


Another approach to behaviour change is the use of nudges, which draw on insights from behavioural economics and psychology to influence behaviour by exploiting flaws in decision-making. Humans do not fit the standard, optimally rational economic model, and often rely on heuristics (rules of thumb) to make decisions. Nudging tries to take advantage of these biases, for instance instituting an opt out policy for workplace pensions. It is an alternative to direct enforcement, and the UK even has its own “nudge unit” – the Behavioural Insight Team. It  popularised the EAST framework, which comprises four simple concepts to consider when designing a behaviour change measure: to encourage a behaviour, make it easy, attractive, social and timely. Some government departments have already begun to explore the various ways in which this could be applied to conservation, resulting in reports such as “Behavioural policy ‘nudges’ to encourage woodland creation for climate change mitigation”.

Social and ecological contexts

In many cases it may be inappropriate to focus on individual behaviours when trying to create change, and top down approaches such as the implementation of new governmental policy may be necessary. Physical and social structures, although themselves often shaped by human agency, can be determinants of behaviours that outweigh knowledge and desire. For instance, someone may be motivated to switch to cycling as a means of commuting to work for the health and environmental benefits, but live somewhere where safe cycling facilities are lacking. In this situation behaviour change is more likely to be achieved by encouraging the creation of cycle lanes, perhaps by targeting local politicians and planners. Alternative approaches to behaviour change, such as advocacy or social mobilisation, can also complement traditional campaigns. Advocacy enables cumulative change beyond individuals through a political process which influences resource allocation and policy decisions at multiple levels, while social mobilisation brings together community members from different sectors to raise awareness and stimulate public support for particular measures.

The EAST Framework.

Case study: Social norms and energy conservation A large influence on our behaviour is the behaviours of others around us. Crafting messages containing social norms such as descriptive statements of the prevalence of a particular behaviour can encourage people to conform. Randomised control trials on the effects of home energy reports by the energy company OPOWER found a 2% reduction in energy consumption for customers who received feedback which compared them to their neighbours 5.

Intervention mapping

With the multitude of different approaches to behaviour change, deciding on a course of action can seem daunting. A systematic theory and evidence-based framework, called ‘intervention mapping’ can help.3 This is a six step iterative process for designing effective behaviour change interventions, outlined below.

The 6 stages of intervention mapping

Implementation mapping is a problem-focused framework. It is a guide for the selection of appropriate theories and techniques for each situation. Behaviour change measures may seem confusing and difficult to plan, but protocols such as implementation mapping can increase your chances of success by grounding your programme in proven theory and evidence.

6 stages of intervention mapping


  1. Richard Bagozzi, Zeynep Gurhan-Canli, Joseph Priester (2002). The Social Psychology of Consumer Behaviour. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  2. Alan R Andreasen. Social marketing: Its definition and domain (1994). J Public Policy Mark. 13(1):108-114.
  3. Gerjo Kok (2014). A practical guide to effective behavior change. Eur Heal Psychol. 16(5):156-170.
  4. Amielle DeWan, Kevin Green, Xiaohong Li, Daniel Hayden (2013). Using social marketing tools to increase fuel-efficient stove adoption for conservation of the golden snub-nosed monkey, Gansu Province, China. Conserv Evid. 32-36.
  5. Hunt Allcott (2011). Social norms and energy conservation. J Public Econ. 95(9-10):1082-1095.


The author is a PhD student at Durrell Institute of Conservation & Ecology (DICE), University of Kent. Her work focuses on behaviour change for demand reduction in the wildlife trade.

Contact the author

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Thomas-Walters, Laura “Behaviour change measures in conservation” ECOS vol. 38(4), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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