Protecting Wisconsin Lakes Takes More Than Just Facts

Why People Think They're Better Conservationists Than Their Neighbors
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John Haack, UW-Extension

People who own lakefront property may believe they are already better environmental stewards than their neighbors.

Wisconsin is fortunate to have approximately 15,000 lakes where people fish, swim, boat, relax, and enjoy the beautiful views. Many Wisconsin residents enjoy lakeside recreation, either as owners of primary or secondary residences or as visitors to parks and resorts. So, too, do plenty of people who don't live in the state. But all contribute to the local economies via property taxes and tourism revenue in the course of their enjoyment.

However, so many people living by and recreating in Wisconsin's lakes can diminish their health. One significant risk is the effect of intensive lakeshore development, which reduces fish and wildlife habitat and can also diminish water quality — some of the main reasons people are attracted to lakes in the first place.

These challenges to lakes around the state can be addressed through effective education and outreach, though. Helping natural resource professionals and lake protection associations be more effective in their outreach to protect Wisconsin's waters partially involves understanding perceptions and behaviors of lakeshore property owners. Research indicates these individuals are more likely to be male, older and politically conservative than the average person in the state. Like most Wisconsinites, they value the lakes and want to protect them. Indeed, lakeshore property owners are more intimately familiar with lake conditions than many other people in the state given it's where they live and play, so they understand the importance of this resource.

Challenges remain, though, when working with people to voluntarily adopt behaviors that protect lake habitat and water quality. To communicate with lakeshore property owners, natural resource professionals need to account for a concept called the knowledge deficit model. It's an assumption that an audience simply lacks the specific information needed to adopt a new practice or support a particular policy. In this dynamic, effective communication is considered to be about explaining the relevant science better or simply putting out more information. But the problem is there is little empirical evidence that this approach is effective. Indeed, communicating the science-based facts supporting a course of action or policy may be necessary, but it is often not sufficient to encourage people to adopt new practices.

For example, research by a team from the University of Wisconsin-Extension and UW-Madison found that most landowners already know that more natural shorelines are better for wildlife habitat and water quality than lawns, raked beaches and other highly manicured landscaping. However, this knowledge and accompanying beliefs are not strongly associated with how people actually managed their own shorelines. This finding should not be surprising.

Everybody has some areas in their lives that call for improvement, such as losing weight, exercising more, eating better, drinking less alcohol, investing more for retirement or any number of other actions. To make these changes, people usually need more than just a little additional information to make a commitment. Of course, education is part of the solution. If lakeshore property owners are not aware of a conservation issue, then they are unlikely to do anything about it. However, to assume that people who aren't adopting a different practice just need a little more information could very well be ineffective. Educational campaigns need to speak to people's personal motivations and perceptions about their own lives and norms in their community to encourage lasting change.

Another barrier is a concept known as self-enhancement bias, which is the human tendency for overly positive evaluations of one's self and own behavior. When it comes to Wisconsin's lakes, property owners may think they are already performing well in terms of adopting more natural shorelines. They often do understand the shared benefits of natural shorelines, but do not necessarily change their behavior.

A research team from UW-Extension, UW-Madison and UW-Stevens Point sought to learn whether self-enhancement bias is one potential barrier to the adoption of more natural shorelines among lakeshore property owners. To test this idea, a group of property owners rated photos of their own and others' moderately developed lakeshore parcels on four dimensions: contribution to natural beauty, usefulness for enjoying the lake, contribution to good water quality and capacity for fish and wildlife habitat. This set of photos highlighted properties that had some developed features such as a boathouse, lawn or cleared beach but also allowed for natural vegetation to be intermingled with their recreational uses and aesthetic preferences.

Property owners often understand the shared benefits of natural shorelines, but do not necessarily change their behaviors.
John Haack, UW-Extension

The research focused on moderately developed parcels because judgments people make about themselves are most sensitive to motivation for a particular outcome when the object being evaluated is ambiguous. More ambiguous scenarios allow a person to make a plausible case for a positive self-assessment; comparing one's own property to others that are similar is a ripe opportunity for positively biased evaluations. Indeed, in all four dimensions, participants rated their own property more positively than other participants did.

These results suggest that property owners may agree that natural shorelines are important but perceive they are already doing more about it than their neighbors, a classic example of self-enhancement bias. People often feel better about themselves than others, which psychologically makes sense, but these overly positive self-assessments may also prevent them from taking action to protect natural resources shared and valued by their neighbors and communities.

One possible strategy for reversing a tendency for overly positive self-assessments is to provide lakeshore property owners' objective information about their personal contributions to lake health using indicators such as contributions to wildlife habitat or infiltration of storm water runoff, which would reduce the ambiguity of their own evaluations. However, such a strategy could run the risk of angering property owners who feel such feedback is a threat to their property rights, particularly if this information is coming from government sources.

Understanding how people use — or don't use — knowledge and their perceptions about their own actions can help natural resource professionals develop effective outreach programs and ultimately protect the state's waters, an effort Wisconsinites of many backgrounds can agree on.

Bret Shaw is environmental communication specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension and an associate professor in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.

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