Increasing Private Contributions To Environmental Goods With Behavioral Insights

Hilary Byerly Flint, University of Vermont


Privately owned lands often undersupply environmental benefits and oversupply environmental costs through land use and management decisions. Insights into human behavior suggest a range of cognitive biases and nonstandard preferences that offer alternative explanations for and, perhaps, strategies to influence landowner behavior. People respond to simple changes in context and framing, make inconsistent choices over time, and respond to social influence—the opinions and behavior of peers.

This dissertation applies insights from behavioral science to strategies that seek to influence individual decisions that impact the environment, especially related to land management. First, I review existing experimental research on behavioral insights to influence decisions in six domains that have large environmental externalities. Behavioral interventions, including changing the status quo and leveraging social influence, are often more effective than simply providing information, but there are few applications to land management. Chapter Two maps behavioral insights onto farmers’ plot-level conservation decisions that benefit biodiversity. Using a case study from California, USA, I find farmers who receive information from their peers are three times more likely to adopt practices that support biodiversity than those who do not. Chapter Three tests the causal effect of social influence on engaging Vermont forest owners in bird habitat conservation. Contrary to results from similar studies in other domains, information about peer participation reduced interest in the conservation program. Chapter Four presents results from another large-scale field experiment that tested the effect of message framing on contributions to water quality in a polluted urban watershed. Participants who read an emotional, personal narrative with tenuous connections to nutrient pollution were willing to pay more for nutrient runoff-reducing landscaping products than those who read a scientific description of nutrient pollution's impacts on ecosystems and surrounding communities.

The findings from these four studies contribute to our understanding of environmentally relevant behavior, with implications for privately managed land and the environmental benefits it provides.