By Jenny Seifert, UWEX Outreach Specialist
Changing behavior is a fascinating but complicated endeavor. So many factors influence our actions, whether or not we are conscious of them, and many a social scientist – from economists to psychologists – has spent her or his career teasing out what does, or doesn’t, nudge people to adopt new habits.
As a goal inherently dependent on behavior change, preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS) requires an approach based in the myriad theories these scientists have developed. To understand what such theory looks like in practice, look no further than your local bait shop.
Bait shops are obligatory hubs for anglers. Not only do they supply essential fishing gear, they are also epicenters for information that anglers pay attention to, like tips on what’s biting. Perhaps because of this, bait shop owners play an important role in the angling community: that of opinion leaders.
Communication research has shown that opinion leaders can be potentially powerful messengers who can influence people’s attitudes and behaviors – more so, in fact, than traditional media can. These individuals may not be in official leadership roles, but they are who other people look to for information on the right thing to think or do.
Through opinion leaders, information flows in two steps. First, the opinion leader receives issue-relevant information from first-hand sources, such as the media. They then pass along that information – or their interpretation of it – to the people in their community, whose attitudes or behaviors may change, or be reinforced, as a result.
As opinion leaders among anglers, bait shop owners are promising conduits for the AIS prevention message. In fact, according to a 2010 survey, over 70 percent of Wisconsin bait shop owners feel they could play an important role in AIS prevention, and almost 75 percent of them already display educational materials on the topic.
A few years ago, researchers from the department of life sciences communication at UW-Madison, with the support of the Wisconsin DNR, piloted a campaign to encourage bait shop owners to own their role as influencers of aquatic invasive species prevention. The researchers partnered with AIS coordinators from around the state, who worked with their local bait shops to provide information about invasive species to their customers.
One of the most important takeaways from the study was that the bait shop owners who participated felt more empowered as opinion leaders and became more willing to engage with their customers about aquatic invasive species prevention. Through their relationship with their local AIS coordinator, they felt more informed about AIS and, in turn, more qualified to inform their customers, demonstrating that the relationship enhanced their self-efficacy as an opinion leader.
Self-efficacy is a crucial element of behavior change and shows up in a few theoretical models. It essentially means that, if we feel we are capable of performing a behavior, we are more likely to perform it.
The results of this pilot effort support not just the idea that bait shop owners are promising partners in AIS prevention whose influence should be leveraged, but also that relationships matter. Building relationships, with opinion leaders or otherwise, can build empowerment in the face of complex challenges like aquatic invasive species.
Over the next few months, members of Wisconsin’s AIS Partnership will be working more with bait shop owners around the state to empower them to engage their customers in the effort to protect our lakes, rivers and wetlands from the harmful effects of invasive species and, thus, preserve the many benefits these ecosystems provide us.