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Developing policy strategies for natural resource management using human behaviour theories

Terry Parminter

Agriculture and Environment Group, AgResearch, Ruakura Research Centre, Private Bag 3123, Hamilton, New Zealand,,


Policy strategies to encourage people to change in their natural resource behaviour usually involve voluntary approaches combined with rules. New Zealand’s Resource Management Act (1991) has a preference for voluntary methods when these can be shown to provide a more efficient mechanism for change. These methods include consultation, intentional communication, education, and the provision of economic incentives. Regional Councils administering the Act, develop Regional Plans in consultation with their communities to identify their natural resource priorities and the desired environmental outcomes. Based upon these outcomes, substantive policy interventions are selected and evaluated and implemented. Under the Act, Regional Council staff are required to select least cost policy interventions but there is very little guidance about how to develop and improve strategies for effective implementation.

Three theories can be used to provide the basis for designing a policy intervention. The Theory of Reasoned Action provides a framework for designing intentional communication strategies that inform, challenge, and build up the confidence of landowners. Social Learning Theory can guide interventions that develop and strengthen social norms and values and reduce risk taking. Deterrence Theory can provide a framework for rules and regulations.

These theories are compared with typical policy strategies used in regional planning and derived from economic models of rational decision making to maximise individual utility. The Theory of Reasoned Action and Social Learning Theory can be used to formulate policy interventions that combine both voluntary and non-voluntary mechanisms. When applied to natural resource issues they provide examples of ways in which policy interventions can be improved to address specific areas of behaviour change.

Three key learnings: (1) Rational decision making models constrain the understanding of policy makers about people’s motivations for making behaviour changes. (2) Policy interventions for encouraging voluntary change can be more effective and predictable by using appropriate models of human behaviour. (3) Intentional communication strategies can be used to supplement educational packages by encouraging behavioural change and addressing psychological barriers to change and rule based policy approaches can be designed using Social Learning to increase the understanding of policy makers about how to meet community priorities

Key Words

Natural resources, learning, change


In 2005 the author was invited to prepare evidence for a hearing of the Environment Court (RMA 1991, p296) considering the Waikato Regional Plan. The evidence contained a review of some of the current research into approaches for encouraging voluntary behavioural change. This paper summarises the results of the review and generalises its application beyond the originally intended focus upon the Regional Plan.

Policy strategies are most effective when they are designed to change people’s behaviour (Howlett and Ramesh 2003, p91). To be effective in the long-term, policy strategies provide ways of encouraging behaviour change through influencing social norms, creating more favourable outcomes for landowners, and rewarding greater compliance (Sterner 2003, p198). Policies applying voluntary methods such as intentional communication to persuade people about the need for change and their responsibility towards policy “problems”, education to inform people about why and how to make changes, and economic incentives to assist people through the process of change, are all consistent with a strategic policy approach for achieving desired policy outcomes (Parminter 2004).

Some successful examples of the use of theory in the design of policies for voluntary change in New Zealand include the introduction of speed cameras in 1993 by the Land Transport Safety Authority (LTSA pers com), the introduction in 1992 of Kiwigreen by ZESPRI (Morriss et al 1998) and the introduction in 1999 of breast screening in Breast Screen Aotearoa (Hughes 2003). There are also examples in New Zealand of what can happen when peoples’ support for policy outcomes has not been achieved. These include: a Central Government attempt to impose a levy on farmers for climate change research and the Federated Farmers’ “Fight Against Ridiculous Taxes” (FART; New Zealand Herald 2001), community rejection of Project Aqua, an electricity development project on the Waitaki River by Meridian Energy (New Zealand Herald 2002), and local opposition to a 400kv electricity lines on 76 metre pylons planned by Transpower between Whakamaru and Otahuhu (New Zealand Herald 2005).

In the latter examples, because of the large scale benefits expected from these projects, Government policy makers have been surprised by the amount of community opposition that was engendered. Until the level of opposition became apparent, the type of policy interventions required to address those issues was deemed to be largely a technical exercise for economists. Each of the projects could provide economic benefits to large populations at a national or regional level for a limited cost to sector groups (like agriculture) or local communities (such as those along the Waitaki River). Resistance from well organised groups that managed to obtain widespread publicity for their cause resulted in the Government reassessing other opportunities for achieving their desired outcomes through further negotiation and persuasion (Howlett and Ramesh 2003, p199).

Rational Choice Theory

Rational Choice Theory and Deterrence Theory are commonly used in the design of Government policy interventions such as those described above. Rational Choice Theory generally uses neo-classical economic models to explain human behaviour. The main policy driver in this theory is that people act rationally in order to maximise their personal utility (Weimer and Vining 2005, p55). The theory provides policy makers with a clear and consistent prescription for policy analysis based upon the principle that people will behave in ways that serve the most self-interest (March 1994, p1; Howlett and Ramesh 2003, p23).

Rational decision makers seeking the best possible outcomes from their decisions addressing policy issues have to gather and organise a lot of information for them to compare the complete range of policy options against all their decision preferences (Howlett and Ramesh 2003, p167). Their most (economically) efficient decision process is to:

Establish goals or problem-solving outcomes for an issue

Identify and develop all the alternative policy strategies for achieving their goal

Identify all the possible consequences from making the decision and develop these into decision criteria

Compare each of the alternatives against the criteria and select the one that is calculated with the greatest likelihood of generating the most advantages

This process of fully considering all and every option makes rational choice theory very information intensive. For policy makers, this becomes much more difficult when there are multiple stakeholders, complex settings, and vague policy problems involved. When policy makers have insufficient or distorted technical information available for using in decision making, or when they have insufficient time to develop a clear issue for their policy to focus upon, they are likely to fall back upon bargaining and negotiation to develop policy (Forester 1984). They may no longer produce rationally framed policy, but by drawing upon theories for consultation or negotiation they may still resolve policy issues at a level that is politically and socially acceptable in the short term.

Deterrence Theory

Deterrence Theory is used by some policy agencies in situations where the policy focus is upon those individuals who continue to benefit from non-compliant behaviour (South 1998). With this theory the threat of enforcement and punishment is considered to be the main determinant of policy effectiveness. If incentives are considered to exist that encourage members of the public to be non-compliant on a policy issue, this can be countered by increasing the size of the punishment for offenders.

Reasoned Action Theory

Work by other social researchers has shown that the decision making of most people is not just based upon utility maximisation (a motivating factor in rational choice theory), although models of costs and benefits can assist policy makers rank the instrumental appeal of different policy options (Sterner 2003, p18; Howlett and Ramesh 2003, p24). Our own studies in AgResearch indicate that decision makers are influenced by the likely instrumental and affective consequences of environmental behaviours and also the expected response of social referents, their self-identity, self-efficacy and their resources, skills, and implementation opportunities. When we have measured the size of these influences in cross-sectional studies of various environmental practices we have been able to predict 40-70% of the variation in landowner intentions (Parminter and Wilson 2003). As a result of our research, we recommend to policy agencies that they combine measures of these elements in a model for environmental policy based upon Reasoned Action theories (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980).

Applying these theories in 2000 we surveyed 3000 landowners across New Zealand (22% response rate) about their riparian management practices and how these related to their intentions and beliefs (Parminter and Wilson 2002). Farmers’ intentions to protect and establish riparian strips (along stream banks) was shown to be equally related to their beliefs about the practical benefits, their degree of self efficacy (i.e. confidence in the effectiveness of their actions), and the perceived social norms (R2>60%, p<0.05). The results indicate that policy agencies can combine a range of voluntary methods to increase the motivation amongst some landowners for making riparian management changes and reduce the demotivating factors amongst others.

For policy agencies to encourage farmers to establish more riparian strips, the research indicated an intentional communication strategy would provide information about specific local waterway health issues and sediment levels, and how farming was affecting these. Environment Award winners would be used to provide information about the value of improved riparian practices to other farmers along with the increased capital value added to their farms (especially dairy farms). Farmers were likely to respond positively if they were provided with information about how they could increase their returns from the areas not involved in riparian planting and reduce the effects of taking riparian land out of production. They would also use external assistance if it was available, to plan their riparian planting so that it minimised any possible conflict with livestock management.

To overcome the demotivating factors associated with riparian strips landowners could be given practical information about how they could minimise costs and overcome weed, pest, or untidiness problems associated with riparian planting. Information about planting native trees can be provided to landowners to describe how they can be planted to improve the attractiveness of a property. Information should also describe how farmers can develop an area as a wildlife habitat and how to ensure it improves waterway health. For many landowners, there is an emotional link to planting native shrubs and trees and so mass communication can be used to emphasis the “feel good” factor with planting indigenous species.

Self-efficacy or confidence that riparian management practices are going to be effective, is as important to the process of practice change as the type of information being provided. Actual results of waterway improvements from making practice change can be shown farmers in promotion campaigns so that they know that making changes is likely to be worthwhile. Landowners appear to put a high weight upon the source of the information that they are provided with and prefer their information to be supplied by acknowledged technical experts and farming peers. This can be made use of in any information being provided to them.

Social Learning

Social learning is about learning vicariously by observing others and modelling their behaviour (Griffin 1991). Akers (1990, 1994), has compared Deterrence Theory (associated with coercive policies) with another theory describing behaviour change – the Social Learning Theory (associated with policies that provide modelling and learning about the desired behaviour). He considered the model of behaviour based upon Deterrence Theory to be subsumed by Social Learning. In other words, that the effectiveness of coercive policies could be explained not by the effects of rules directly on peoples’ behaviour, but by combining an understanding of their effects upon people’s expectations of rewards and punishments, and the degree of congruence between a person’s behaviour and those of their social intimates (Watson 2004a).

Watson tested a range of Deterrence Theory and Social Learning variables against the frequency of unlicensed driving and intentions to drive in future while unlicensed amongst 290 traffic offenders in Queensland. He found that the classical Deterrence Theory variables were able to explain less than 10% of the variance in peoples’ behaviour (2004b; R2=0.04-0.09, p>0.05 respectively for the two behaviours). The Social Learning model was able to improve the results by explaining between 20-30% of the variance in peoples’ behaviour (R2=0.18-0.34, p<0.05 respectively).

Watson’s research showed that of all the variables tested, the only significant ones were (from classical Deterrence Theory) “Existing convictions for noncompliant behaviour”, and (from Social Learning) “Experience of being able to avoid enforcement”, “Current degree of compliance of family and friends “, “Personal attitudes towards noncompliant behaviour”, “Personal attitudes towards alternative (compliant) behaviours”, “Attitudes of family and friends to noncompliant behaviour”, and “Anticipated social and non-social punishments for noncompliant behaviour”.

In the study, existing convictions for noncompliant behaviour from Deterrence Theory appeared to have an influence upon the behaviour of unlicensed drivers. However, this influence was the reverse of what might be expected from that theory as an increasing number of convictions were associated with an increased intention to drive while unlicensed in the future.

If we apply Social Learning theory results from policy interventions dealing with road safety to environmental policy, they suggest that noncompliant behaviour will be reduced if people have favourable attitudes towards the desired behaviour and an unfavourable attitude towards any noncompliant behaviour, and their friends and family have similar attitudes. To influence the behaviour of others, friends and family should model the desired behaviour and respond negatively to any display of undesired behaviour.

To be consistent with Social Learning Theory, any time that policy staff (or their agents) are on a property, they should check that landowner behaviour is consistent with Regional Policy, and any breaches should be followed up with further action. Actual convictions for non-compliance should be kept as a “last resort” after using methods of persuasion and social reinforcement. Reinforcing and changing attitudes requires an intentional communication strategy and education programme such as can be achieved by applying principles from the Theory of Reasoned Action.


Human behaviour change should be the focus of environmental policy interventions rather than environmental change its-self, as the expression of a desired behaviour is the most direct and certain way for policies to generate environmental improvements. The substantive policy approaches described in this paper are compatible with procedural policy approaches involving affected stakeholders to decide priorities and agreed policy mechanisms (Howlett and Ramesh 2003, p91). The resources made available for substantive policy interventions need to be matched to the size of the environmental problem and the amount of inertia in the system before improvements may become apparent.

If we are to ensure that implementing voluntary policy approaches is going to create measurable environmental differences a number of key elements are required, including the following:

  • Clear behaviour change objectives focussed and time-bound to match the resources available (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980, p29-39).
  • Interventions are all planned based upon accepted theory and evidence to maximise the advantages for decision makers from changing to more compliant behaviour (Donovan and Henley 2003, p236).
  • The interventions for the policies are designed and implemented in consultation with the affected communities and implementation of these policies is co-ordinated with the activities of other (statutory and non-statutory) agencies (Morriss et al 2001).
  • Enough information is provided in education packages to guide decision makers and help them develop any new skills that they may need for successful implementation of the desired behaviour changes (Ministry for the Environment 1998, p10).
  • Intentional communication to persuade decision makers of the merits of change and to build their confidence in their ability to make decisions and achieve predictable measurable results1 (Parminter 2002, Parminter and Wilson 2004, Petty and Cacioppo 1986).

Redefining social norms by providing role models and social reinforcement for desired practices and sufficient consistent reprobation to reduce deviant behaviour (Watson 2004a).

Economic incentives that provide compensatory payments for externalised benefits (e.g. public good effects) or to assist landowners with high capital costs (Parminter 2003).

Rules restraining any behaviour that is socially unacceptable to the affected communities and in conflict with desired policy outcomes - rigidly enforced by the policy agency involved (Morriss et al 1998).

Regular and objective (formative) evaluation based upon the behaviour objectives, of the effectiveness of the policy approach to provide early feedback about the need for policy changes (Patton 1997; Ajzen and Fishbein 1980).

It is concluded that on environmental issues, policy strategies applying theory based approaches for encouraging voluntary behavioural change to achieve socially desired outcomes will be more effective than using only deterrent strategies for the same purpose.


The Waikato Regional Council (Environment Waikato) and its staff have assisted financially and intellectually in the development of the ideas presented in this paper.


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1 This is usually central to any social marketing strategy e.g. Hughes 2003.

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