Bridging the Gap from Intention to Action in Conservation

How important is nature to you? Do you value being outdoors under towering cedars? Are you most yourself when you are fishing peacefully on a vast green lake or plunging your feet into the cold, rushing water of a mountain stream after a long day of hiking? Maybe you look forward all year to the times when you can set up camp with your family and fall asleep to the sound of waves rolling over a beach.

Image by Sharilynn Wardrop

Unsurprisingly perhaps, research shows that most Canadians value nature. In British Columbia, we identify with our expansive forests, soaring mountains, ocean shores, and fresh water. Where we sometimes get stuck — for many good reasons — is in making that connection between appreciating and valuing nature to taking action to protect it. Behavioural insights — or BI — can provide a bridge across that tricky space between intention (I want to protect nature that I value) and action (changing my actual behaviour to help make that happen). And BI can show us that sometimes, with just a little nudge in the right direction, we can make a big difference with even small actions.

I am new to the BC Behavioural Insights Group (BC BIG), where I am doing a one-year temporary assignment as Knowledge Translation Strategist. My background is as a biologist, and I have taken a meandering career path through conservation biology, museum education and programming, and science communications. My most recent stop before joining BC BIG was as a Protected Areas Ecologist in BC Parks Conservation Program. At BC Parks we often try to solve conservation challenges that sit in that gap between people’s intentions and their actions. I was excited to get the opportunity to join BC BIG, where I am learning a lot about how and why people behave the way they do. As I learn, I am keeping in mind what BI might have to say about conservation — particularly in parks.

BI has been applied with a lot of success to some broad-scale conservation challenges. For example, one principle of BI is that many people are drawn to conform to social norms. So, if their energy bill lets them know they use more energy than their neighbours, people are likely to consume less. Recent studies in the UK showed this approach consistently reduced energy consumption by an average of 2–3 %.

Example of social norms on a utility bill from the Behavioural Insights Team’s Behaviour Change and Energy Use

Studies of BI in on-the-ground conservation initiatives are, however, harder to find. One example comes right from BC BIG. BC BIG team members worked with Recreation Sites and Trails to design a study to understand how to reduce snowmobiling in restricted Southern Mountain Caribou habitat. Using a series of data collection methods, including a survey and interviews with snowmobile clubs, they learned that snowmobilers generally wanted to avoid restricted caribou habitat. But the information they had about where those areas are was hard to understand. So, the BC BIG team worked with Recreation Sites and Trails and GeoBC to design a map that snowmobilers agreed was easier to understand. The map will be available to sledders in several formats, including in an app that they could use in real-time to see where they are. This work to bridge that intention (protect caribou) with action (avoid restricted habitat) could have a very real impact on caribou conservation efforts.

One important step the BC BIG team took was to test the proposed map options by gathering feedback to see which one was the easiest for sledders to understand. Without testing, we can sometimes create behavioural interventions that actually make things worse. Remember that principle that people tend to want to conform to social norms? A study in Petrified Forest National Park in the U.S. looked at whether telling people about other people’s behaviour would help reduce the amount of theft of pieces of petrified wood from the park. The study revealed that signs informing people that a lot of visitors were taking pieces of petrified wood out of the park increased theft by about 6%. The sign sent the message that theft is common, not that theft is bad.

The percent of available wood stolen by the sign using strong social norms was nearly 8%. The strongly-worded sign with no social norms resulted in less than 2% of available wood stolen. Sign image source. Data source: CIALDINI, R. B., BARRETT, D. W., BATOR, R., DEMAINE, L., SAGARIN, B. J., RHOADS, K. V. L., & WINTER, P. L. 2006. ACTIVATING AND ALIGNING SOCIAL NORMS FOR PERSUASIVE IMPACT. SOCIAL INFLUENCE. 1 (1), 3–15.

I can’t wait to learn more about BI. As I learn I will keep thinking about where it can help design better conservation interventions. If you would like to learn more about BC BIG, write us at and ask to be added to our BIG Difference mail list.

If you would like to learn about BI and conservation along with me, check out some of the following resources:

Sharilynn Wardrop

Sharilynn is a Knowledge Translation Specialist with the BC Behavioural Insights Group.



BC Behavioural Insights Group (BC BIG)

BC BIG is a corporate unit in the British Columbia Public Service that uses behavioural science to improve services for citizens and society.