Social norms help motivate people to adopt practices that protect water quality

March 4th, 2020 by

Despite good intentions, many of us don’t necessarily change our behaviors to help protect the health of local waters. What would make the difference? Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant researchers combined social science and biophysical data to understand the likelihood that residents of northwest Indiana would implement practices that can be beneficial to water quality.

Among other findings, the research team found that people are more likely to adopt a conservation practice if it is something their friends or neighbors are doing.

Zhao Ma and Sara McMillan, both of Purdue University, focused their study on two Indiana watersheds that flow into Lake Michigan—the East Branch–Little Calumet River watershed and the Trail Creek watershed—quantifying pollution inputs and interviewing and surveying residents.

The research team divided the population into five groups that covered a range of urban, rural and agricultural landowners to assess each group’s contribution to local water pollution and learn about their willingness to adopt practices that might make a difference.

For each group, the scientists assessed ongoing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment inputs as well as conservation practices already in place. These practices, also known as best management practices, are effective and practical approaches to reduce pollution and protect water quality, such as rain barrels and rain gardens in urban areas, and cover crops and conservation tillage in agricultural settings.

Overall, researchers found that participants were aware of water quality issues. “But what we’ve learned is that urban residents think farmers are the problem and farmers think urban residents are the problem” said Ma, a social scientist. “People tend to blame others.”

The study found that all five groups do, in fact, contribute to water pollution. The researchers also conducted a survey experiment by randomly including this information in some surveys to assess its impact on responses. But, when participants learned they are responsible for water pollution, this did not necessarily impact their willingness to adopt practices to reduce water pollution. Unless they already wanted to take action, survey respondents generally were unmoved by learning their contribution to local water pollution.

Providing general information on possible best management practices for improving water quality was not a key component for changing behaviors either, but it may provide a motivation for water resource professionals to engage in one-on-one discussions and explanations with residents.

“We learned that survey respondents didn’t necessarily have the knowledge or capacity to figure out if a conservation practice would work for them—this was a major barrier to action,” said Ma. “Residents knew what’s possible generally, but they wanted someone to help them decide what practices fit with their specific property and way of life.”

On the other hand, social norms are an important component in people’s decision making. Social norms include both descriptive norms—what you can observe in plain sight, such as your neighbors using rain barrels—and more subjective norms, for instance, what you think people expect of you.

The research team confirmed previous studies, demonstrating that people are socially driven. Generally, if we realize neighbors, friends and trusted peers are taking action, this makes us more likely to do something, too. Social norms can be a much bigger motivator to adopt conservation practices than information alone, and sometimes works better than other types of incentives.

For those interested in motivating residents, Ma suggests thinking about ways to capitalize on social norms. “Consider organizing community events or programming that encourages people to talk to each other—they become more aware of what others are doing and what is expected of them from their community,” she said. “Community role models and opinion leaders can also play an important role. The social aspect should be part of the solution strategy to protect water quality.”

The researchers have one more piece to this project. They are running different modeling scenarios to understand the realistic potential of using conservation practices to reduce water pollution in the watersheds. With that information, they will be able to further identify groups of residents to target for increased education, assistance and incentives to promote adoption of conservation practices.

You can listen to a podcast interview of Zhao Ma discussing this research in the first “Teach Me About the Great Lakes” Researcher Feature.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.


Writer: Irene Miles, 217.333.8055,

Zephyr needs assessment tunes in to local perceptions

October 16th, 2015 by

The first step in useful communication is to listen to your audience. By addressing the perceptions and needs of a community, information can really have impact. With this mission in mind, IISG Environmental Social Scientist Caitie Nigrelli and her intern Carly Norris went to the Zephyr site in Muskegon County in Michigan.

The name, short for the former Zephyr Oil Refinery, refers to property on the Muskegon River that was polluted and contaminated from decades of oil spills beginning at the turn of the twentieth century.
But before permits are pulled and backhoes are delivered, Nigrelli and Norris, as environmental scientists, talk to the people who are being affected — to find out what their concerns are, what they’d like to see happen.
So they interviewed community stakeholders about how they feel about an area that was at one time ranked by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality the fourth most hazardous in Muskegon County.
Regardless of its dirty and neglected past, many in the community are interested in seeing its eventual remediation and recovery, Nigrelli and Norris found.
They published their findings in their recently released, “A Needs Assessment for Outreach on the Muskegon Lake Area of Concern’s Former Zephyr Refinery,” funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
“I was really pleased with the diversity of the people we talked with. It really helped me understand the interests and concerns of the stakeholders,” Nigrelli said. “Something that kept coming up was the importance of clear, consistent communication with the property owners adjacent to the site. Now we know where to focus our efforts.”
Norris added, “Incorporating community members in the cleanup process helps create an outcome more tailored to local views and ideas.”
Their contribution is one of several steps that traditionally take place before remediation under the Great Lakes Legacy Act occurs.
The cleanup could get started as early as 2016. For more information and to follow the status of the project, visit

Intern Update: Milwaukee’s Lincoln Park celebrates a remediation milestone

October 12th, 2015 by

Lincoln Park and I are both coming to the end of an exciting chapter this fall. As my internship with

IISG comes to a close, Phase 2 sediment remediation work in in Lincoln Park in Milwaukee is also finishing up.

Four years and more than 170,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment later, Lincoln Park is looking to reap the benefits of the newly cleaned Milwaukee River. As contractors work to remove equipment, sediment samples are being taken to ensure no contamination has been missed.
To commemorate this truly historic milestone, IISG environmental social scientist Caitie Nigrelli and I traveled to Milwaukee to spend some time on the river and celebrate the success with our clean-up partners. Hospitable as usual, Friends of Lincoln Park members took us around the city allowing us to catch a glimpse of the possibilities that environmental reinvestment holds for community revitalization.
Within the park, we took advantage of the warm fall weather for a canoe trip through the remediated portion of the river. As we paddled, perennial grasses and beaver-cut branches secluded us from Lincoln Park’s urban setting. We were not the only ones out experiencing the newly restored park; kill-deer, great blue herons, and other wildlife were also enjoying a clean habitat.
Although remediation work is complete, there is still much to be done within the park. Much like sediment remediation, successful ecosystem restoration is a long process. Started in 2012, the 11-acre Phase 1 restoration work is finally showing the fruits of its labor.
Many bees could be seen buzzing around native asters (see photo) and goldenrod on the shoreline at the west end of the park. Like Phase 1, restoration work in the East Oxbow of the river will bring a diversity of native plant species, stabilize the shoreline, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.
After watching the sun set over the river, Caitie and I completed our day at the Friends of Lincoln Park restoration celebration. Over cake and ice cream, representatives from the Milwaukee County Parks and CH2M, an environmental consulting company, presented information on the remediation and restoration progress.
The neighborhood unity fostered through this river cleanup is impressive. As a new chapter begins for the river, park, and neighbors alike, seeds of passion and park investment are spreading, akin to the native seeds of restoration to come.
For more information on the cleanup of Lincoln Park, visit
-Carly Norris

Milwaukee River gets a little help from its friends

April 29th, 2015 by

Over 200 bags of trash, some shopping carts, mattresses, and a port-o-let were removed from Milwaukee’s Lincoln Park earlier this month during an annual river cleanup led by Milwaukee Riverkeeper. The event drew nearly 3,500 residents and local officials to rivers across the city. Almost 100 of these volunteers were members of the Friends of Lincoln Park. Formed last October, this cleanup was the group’s first outreach project, with many more slated for 2015.

Members of the Lincoln Park community first came together in response to ongoing efforts to rid the Milwaukee River bottom of legacy contaminants like PCBs and PAHs. Phase two of the Great Lakes Legacy Act project was underway, and with the river making up such a large portion of the park, the community was taking notice. With support from focus groups conducted by Caitie McCoy and UW-Extension’s Gail Epping Overholt, residents were inspired to create a way to voice their thoughts and concerns on the direction of the park. 

The result was the Lincoln Park Friends Group, who, in association with Milwaukee County Parks, the Park People, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and Wisconsin Sea Grant, is now working to revitalize Lincoln Park in a way that brings together the surrounding community.

“Most members have grown up enjoying the parks,” said David Thomas, secretary for the Friends of Lincoln Park. “We all think of the parks as a valuable community resource.”
The group hopes to instill a similar sense of stewardship in other community members. Along with plans to clear out areas overgrown with invasive plants, some members have expressed an interest in creating youth groups to provide opportunities to learn how to fish or canoe and to get to know the park’s natural surroundings in general.

“There’s a ton of work to do, but we want to build organically,” Thomas added.  “We want to build it slowly, and we want it to be strong and sustainable.”

***Photo credit: Friends of Lincoln Park

Understanding community perceptions will aid in Trenton Channel cleanup

October 13th, 2014 by

The Trenton Channel, part of the 32-mile Detroit River, could see a cleanup in 2016 through the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which combines federal funding with local support. Before that can happen though, voluntary partners must agree to help fund this final cleanup stage. The Detroit River is one of 29 remaining Areas of Concern in the U.S., a result of decades of poor environmental practices. The fast-moving Trenton Channel is one of the top sources of pollution in the river system due to its history of industrial and municipal practices.

Scientists and engineers are currently designing a cleanup plan to address approximately 240,000 cubic yards of sediment in the upper portion of the Trenton Channel. A majority of the community surrounding this remediation project is looking with optimism and enthusiasm to the clean-up efforts. Yet these feelings are by no means unanimous. 

Caitie McCoy, IISG social scientist, and her two summer interns—Mark Krupa and Erika Lower—conducted a needs assessment with local stakeholders of Trenton Channel, including environmentalists, recreation enthusiasts, property owners, and city officials. They found that the channel is viewed as important to the region, but that the clean-up plan is viewed with some skepticism.


Caitie explains:

I assumed that everyone would be overjoyed that a sediment remediation project was happening in their community. Yet there were quite a few concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the project. About a third of the stakeholders we interviewed said that cleaning up pollution would provide no significant community benefits.

This needs assessment has given our outreach team a better sense of what is important to our stakeholders. We have a better sense of what information they want about this project.


Increasingly, social science provides the go-to method for Sea Grant programs to develop informed outreach efforts. In the 2014-2015 research cycle, 29 programs funded 59 social science research projects. Additionally, state Sea Grant programs are hiring social scientists.

More from Caitie:

Large-scale needs assessments are a wise investment for big outreach projects. Needs assessments give us detailed information about our audience concerning a topic of interest–in this case, it was sediment remediation. This information would otherwise be difficult to obtain. Even working with an outreach team composed of local leaders, we make a lot of assumptions about our stakeholders. Needs assessments help us cut through those assumptions so that we can understand what our stakeholders are really interested in or concerned about. This helps us design better messaging and better outreach events for our stakeholders.

To learn more about what the researchers learned from Trenton Channel stakeholders, you can download A Needs Assessment for Outreach in the Detroit River Area of Concern’s Trenton Channel.

Caitie’s canoe story: a Wolf Lake field trip

September 29th, 2014 by
Caitie McCoy, our environmental social scientist, writes in today to tell us about a unique education experience: 

Last week, I ventured out of the office and into the field to hit the waters of the recently restored Wolf Lake with about 200 students from Hammond, IN. The weather was perfect for two days of canoeing and environmental education. Compassion for nature starts in childhood, so when asked by some partners at U.S. EPA, I jumped at the chance to help provide youth with such a meaningful outdoor experience.

We began our first day with an energetic greeting from Wilderness Inquiry, a national non-profit that aims to get as many city kids on the water as possible. The majority of the students had never been on any kind of boat before, but a friendly sun and slight breeze helped to calm a lot of nerves.
Students went out on the canoes in waves throughout the day, learning how to paddle and touring many restoration features. There were a lot of beautiful sites to see, including an egret that sat as still as a statue for hours on an island full of colorful native plants. Goldenrod, blue asters, and red maples dotted the landscape. With all the natural beauty surrounding us, we almost forgot that we were located in the middle of one of the country’s top industrial powerhouses .

The EPA team and I stayed busy providing the students with learning experiences as they waited for their turn on the canoes. We brought the Enviroscape, and it was a hit. Students loved the interactive nature of the game and learned a lot about their local watershed and what they can do to protect it from different pollution sources. We also took them on hikes by the lake, picking up litter and identifying different plant species.


We had a lot of fun teaching, but I must admit, the highlight of my two days at Wolf Lake was jumping into a canoe and paddling around on the calm water with the students. It was rewarding to see high school students drop their guard and excitedly point out different shorebirds or hear them discuss the need to clean up the pollution in northwest Indiana, completely unprompted by an adult. 
I’m grateful for our partnership with Wilderness Inquiry, and I hope to join them again next year. The opportunity is just too meaningful to miss!

Social science leads to community stewardship in Wisconsin’s Lincoln Park

September 18th, 2014 by
Exciting changes are coming to Wisconsin’s Lincoln Park, part of the Milwaukee River Area of Concern. Phase two of Great Lakes Legacy Act efforts to remove historical contaminants from the river bottom is set to begin next month. And park neighbors and stakeholders from across Milwaukee County are already well on their way to launching a Friends of Lincoln Park group that will help foster greater community stewardship.
More than 20 neighbors came together for the first time earlier this month to get to know each other, discuss potential group goals, and brainstorm ways to achieve them. They were joined by numerous local and regional organizations interested in protecting Lincoln Park, including University of Wisconsin Extension, Milwaukee County Parks, the Park People, and the Illinois-Indiana and Wisconsin Sea Grant programs.
Nothing is official yet, but the meeting ended with two main goals on everyone’s mind: fostering a sense of community with the park at the center and protecting the local environment.
“For a long time, the park was very community centered, but it has become more of an outsider attraction in the last few decades,” said Caitie McCoy, IISG’s social scientists and co-host of the meeting. “The group had great ideas for re-energizing community interest with events that bring locals out to enjoy all the resources the park has to offer.”
The idea for a Friends group took shape during focus groups conducted this spring by Caitie and UW-Extension’s Gail Epping-Overholt. They spoke with a variety of people living or working near Lincoln Park to better understand community perceptions of the park and ongoing sediment remediation efforts. When the results of the needs assessment were in, it was clear that residents were interested in forming the Friends of Lincoln Park.
The results will also play a key role in shaping public outreach and project messaging as dredging kicks off again this fall for phase two of the remediation. More than 120,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment have already been removed from the Lincoln Park segments of the Milwaukee River, and this next round of dredging is expected to remove another 35,000 cubic yards. Together with cleanup efforts in nearby Blatz Pavilion lagoon, the two Lincoln Park projects are expected to reduce the amount toxic PCBs flowing into the Milwaukee River system by 70 percent, a drop that will go a long way towards delisting the AOC. 
To learn more about recommendations to come out of the needs assessment, download the full report from our products page. And if you live in the area and are interested in joining the Friends of Lincoln Park, come out to the next meeting on October 9. Contact Caitie McCoy at for more information.   
Special thanks to IISG interns Erika Lower and Mark Krupa for their help analyzing and the results of the needs assessment and to Jane Harrison at Wisconsin Sea Grant for taking notes during the focus groups and helping to coordinate the Friends meetings. 

***Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Extension.

Interns Erika and Mark explored the social side of environmental science

August 19th, 2014 by

Our summer internship program has wrapped up for another year. This year, seven students and recent graduates worked with our specialists on a broad range of issues, including AIS prevention, sediment remediation, and water supply planning. Erika Lower and Mark Krupa spent their internship working with Caitie McCoy, IISG’s social scientist.

“We did a little bit of everything this summer—from compiling reports on public perceptions of river cleanups in Detroit and Milwaukee to conducting interviews with community members to covering a day of outreach at Indiana’s Roxana Marsh” said Erika, a graduate from Virginia Tech who also interned last year with Virginia Sea Grant. “Working on so many diverse projects mean there was rarely a slow day at the office.”

Their favorite experiences came while onsite at Great Lakes Legacy Act sediment remediation projects. One such trip took them to the Upper Trenton Channel near Detroit to conduct a needs assessment that will help the project team tailor outreach products and messaging to those who use and visit the river. 

 “Our Detroit trip was definitely my favorite part,” said Mark, a University of Illinois alum. “We talked to over 30 different community members. It was great to see the site we had researched and really get to know the community, their concerns, and how they value the waterway.”

“How often do you get a chance to tour the site of a former oil refinery or conduct an interview from a powerboat in the middle of the Detroit River while watching the sun rise?” Erika added.  
These experiences further boosted their interest in the social science and highlighted its importance in environmental conservation.
“I’ve always been interested in the human dimensions of environmental science, but actually getting out into the field and talking with community members about their hopes and concerns illustrated just how complex finding the best solution to environmental issues can be,” said Erika.
“Before this internship, I didn’t realize how important it is to address local perceptions and concerns surrounding environmental cleanup projects,” said Mark. “Also, I hadn’t realized how much thought goes into designing outreach materials in order to ensure they attract an audience and effectively communicate the message.”

With their internship complete, Erika and Mark are turning their attention to graduate school. Mark will begin a Master’s in public health at Saint Louis University later this month. And Erika plans to complete graduate work in science communication or environmental social science. 

Social science strengthens outreach for the Upper Trenton Channel clean-up plan

July 28th, 2014 by

Scientists and engineers are working together to design a clean-up plan for Michigan’s Upper Trenton Channel, where high concentrations of historic pollutants pose a threat to aquatic life and public health. The process began about a year ago with a feasibility study. In January, local residents had a chance to weigh-in on an early draft of the plan. And in the coming years, this Great Lakes Legacy Act project could remove or cap around 240,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment.  
Just as important as the clean-up effort itself, is ensuring that local communities and other key stakeholders understand the project and its goals. But before they can begin public outreach, project partners have to understand and appreciate the role the channel and nearby Detroit River play in the communities. 
That is where IISG’s social scientist Caitie McCoy and her interns Erika Lower and Mark Krupa come in. The three were in Michigan earlier this month to conduct a needs assessment that will help the project team tailor outreach products and messaging to those who use and visit the river.
They interviewed around 35 people with diverse backgrounds—everyone from area residents to city planners to members of boating associations—to learn more about their perceptions of the channel and river. The final results of the study won’t be available for a few months, but the interviews have already given Caitie, Erika, and Mark a better understanding of the interests and concerns surrounding this popular recreation site.
“One interesting thing we learned was that the safety of the channel and river during dredging is of prime importance to the community,” said Caitie. “This is a fast flowing channel, and we will need to explain the science and engineering behind what keeps stirred up sediment from flowing downstream during the project—in terms that everyone can understand.”

An impromptu trip on the channel also gave Caitie, Erika, and Mark deeper insight into how the community uses the channel and river. The trip—which set off bright and early on the 16th—was led by the Wyandotte Rowing Club. Later that night, the group took to the water once again with one of the residents they interviewed.  
Similar studies for the Sheboygan River and St. Louis River Areas of Concern have already helped shape outreach efforts there and allowed project partners to gauge changes in community perceptions at the end of a clean-up project.
The Upper Trenton Channel, which sits about 20 miles south of Detroit, is part of the Detroit River AOC. Project partners include Michigan Sea Grant, Friends of the Detroit River, the Detroit River Public Advisory Council, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Michigan Department of Community Health, and the U.S. EPA. 
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