A new study demonstrates the powerful impact that subtle messaging and cues, or ‘nudges’, can provide on encouraging people to show socially desirable behaviours. Travellers who were observed on the Indonesian island of Gili Trawangan, a popular diving destination, were more likely to demonstrate environmentally conscious actions, such as refusing a plastic bag or avoiding contact with a coral reef, when they were ‘nudged’ towards the desirable action with either a written or face to face interaction. The researchers found that any intervention, whether framed positively or negatively, was enough to lead people to make environmentally conscious decisions, compared to being given no behavioural cues or messaging. The study provides many practical takeaways that can be easily implemented by tourist operators or businesses, at a low cost, to increase environmental stewardship and promote positive behaviours in their customers.

Although many of us feel a responsibility to demonstrate environmentally-conscious behaviours and possess the knowledge we need to take these actions, we are often burdened by numerous obstacles, a phenomenon the researchers describe as the ‘knowledge-action gap’. Dr Katherine Nelson, who led the study in partnership with the Gili Eco Trust, explains:

The gap between knowledge and action exists because it is much easier to think a certain way than it is to actually consistently behave in that manner — but providing a subtle cue can help us relieve some of the cognitive burden on our brains when we are in a complex environment.

To try and close this gap, the researchers set up scenarios for tourists in two real-life situations — when being offered a plastic bag at a convenience store, and when given a briefing before a snorkelling trip. The researchers observed the differences in behaviour based on whether a person was confronted with a written or face to face interaction of either a positive message highlighting good outcomes, or a negative message focusing on the bad outcomes of a specific action.

K. Nelson and coauthors
Poster used in the study to stimulate environmentally friendly behaviour, through a negative message

The study showed that the presence of a ‘nudge’ or cue towards certain behaviours was enough to encourage people to behave in more environmentally conscious ways, whether that was refusing a plastic bag whilst at the convenience store or ensuring they maintained a safe distance from turtles when on a snorkelling trip – whether this message was framed positively or negatively did not matter.

“Our study highlights that an intervention can lead people to making better decisions by just drawing their attention to an issue — by providing a small cue, we can reduce the obstacles that get in the way and make environmental behaviors easy.”

The results offer important insights on the effectiveness of simple messaging as a practical way to nudge people towards environmentally conscious behaviors. The tourist sector in particular has huge potential to utilize these types of approaches and make pro-environmental behaviors a simple choice to reduce local impacts.

What happened with the Snorkellers?

Turtle Point in Gili Trawangan is popular with snorkellers and gear can be rented on multiple stands along the beach. According to the Gili Eco Trust and dive shops, most interactions between snorkellers and turtles occur here. it is the most frequented snorkel area around Gili Trawangan accessible from land, and, consequently, receives the most reef damage by snorkellers.

 A printed briefing sheet informing snorkellers about either a positive (careful) or negative (damaging) snorkelling behaviour. Snorkellers who were preparing to get into the water were approached by one of the volunteers of the local NGO Gili Eco Trust. The volunteers introduced themselves, briefly outlined the work of the NGO (being coral reef conservation and waste treatment) and then provided information about snorkelling behaviour to reduce impacts on the reef.

In total, the volunteers observed 184 snorkellers. Overall, 144 impacts on marine wildlife by 73 snorkellers were noted, of which 28 impacts were involuntary. Impacts included standing and walking on the reef, touching the reef, breaking/kicking corals, suspension of sand close to corals, coming closer than 1.5 m to sea turtles, obstructing, chasing, and touching sea turtles. 

Briefing snorkellers about looking after the reef and sea life
lessens the damage they can cause – especially with women.
Men tend to take less notice and cause more damage.

The briefing sheet highlighting careful snorkelling resulted in the least number of impacts and lowest impact scores. But both the positive and the negative briefings had a significant effect on mitigating damaging snorkelling compared to no information being offered.  Men though were more likely to have a higher number of impacts compared to women. This may be because men are less likely to follow pre-dive instructions. 

The researchers conclude that in snorkel tourism, pre-trip briefings can be very effective. They suggest implementing a briefing upon rental of snorkel gear, or before entering the water during regular SCUBA dive briefings. Due to the finding that impacts are highest from beginners, an introductory lesson would be helpful to improve snorkelling skills of novices. In the case of Gili Trawangan, information sheets could be offered to rental stall owners and require mandatory reading of the briefing sheet before renting the equipment. Likewise, snorkel and SCUBA boat tour operators could present a briefing sheet before snorkelers enter the ocean.

Further Reading

Katherine M. NelsonMirja Kristina Bauer and Stefan Partelow (2021). Informational Nudges to Encourage Pro-environmental Behavior: Examining Differences in Message Framing and Human InteractionFrontiers in Communication, 945–949. doi:10.1177/154193129303701403

Vredenburgh AG, Cohen HH. Compliance with Warnings in High Risk Recreational Activities: Skiing and Scuba. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting. 1993;37(14):945-949. doi:10.1177/154193129303701403

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