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Table of contents

Are farmers being manipulated?

First and foremost, it is important to acknowledge there is no neutral choice architecture: the way options are presented to farmers will always influence their decisions. The choice that policy-makers face is to either let other forces dictate how the choice architecture is shaped, or take a more active role. Three criteria Sunstein, , can be used to assess on a case-by-case basis whether behaviourally informed policies raise ethical concern: do these interventions promote or undermine welfare, autonomy and dignity?

Second, regarding autonomy, adopting a behavioural approach to encourage voluntary adoption of sustainable practices does not rob farmers of their free will i. Behaviourally informed agri-environmental policies can also promote autonomy by equipping farmers with the right information e. The policy options we have presented also do not leverage nudges based on system 1 i.

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Rather, most of these suggested behavioural interventions appeal to reflection or deliberation. First, a comprehensive behavioural approach to farmer decision-making, investigating proximal as well as distal factors, requires more cross-disciplinary work. Whereas proximal factors e. A second general research gap concerns early phases of farmer decision-making. Third, it is important to go beyond individual behaviour and tackle group decision-making at farm level. Farms are usually family businesses, and decisions are rarely made by a single farmer.

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In contrast, most research cited in this paper tends to consider farmers as individual decision-makers with the exception of papers examining the influence of injunctive norms. Given the relevance of age to the decision to adopt more sustainable practices Yeboah, Lupi and Kaplowitz, , the intergenerational aspect of group decision-making at farm level Trujillo-Barrera, Pennings and Hofenk, seems particularly relevant. We now turn to detail specific research gaps related to each of the three identified clusters of behavioural factors. Regarding the influence of dispositional factors, further research is needed to test whether the crowding-out effect applies to payments for environmental services made to farmers who are intrinsically motivated to protect the environment.

Additionally, more research would be welcome to assess whether moral licensing and the rebound effect occur when farmers adopt sustainable practices. The effectiveness of the sociodemographic and geographic segmentation advocated to address dispositional factors should also be further investigated. The provision of feedback on descriptive norms as a tool to motivate the adoption of sustainable practices deserves more research, especially its potential side effects. More research is also needed to understand which risks e.

From a CAP perspective, we identify three priority research opportunities. The first is to assess the optimal mix of mandatory and voluntary agri-environmental measures. Second, the new CAP proposals regarding environmental, climate and other management commitments European Commission, c pave the way for Member States to include collective voluntary schemes and results-based payments. Understanding how behavioural factors e. The impact of risk aversion, perceived costs and perceived control will be key to understanding how farmers will respond to this new delivery model.

The third priority research gap concerns the cross-cultural robustness of the behavioural factors identified in the literature. Virtually all of the research reviewed in this paper was conducted in specific national or regional contexts. Assessing the external validity of behavioural factors across countries is warranted because, despite the expected shift towards greater subsidiarity, many EU agricultural policies are still centrally designed. This requires concurrent cross-national behavioural research using identical methodologies, or at least that researchers report the methods they use more completely e.

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The growing interest in using experiments to evaluate the impact of agricultural policies Colen et al. Experiments carried out to inform agricultural policies indeed most often include a behavioural component, as the outcome variable generally consists in decisions made by farmers. Experimental research is called for, both to fill the policy-oriented research gaps identified above, and to address some shortcomings of existing research on the behavioural factors influencing farmer decision-making. Experiments are also the best option to assess the effectiveness of the policy options suggested throughout this paper.

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We also believe that experiments can help address three shortcomings of the existing research. For instance, the perceived environmental benefits associated with sustainable practices are correlated with the adoption of organic farming practices e. Beedell and Rehman, However, it may very well be that the adoption triggers a perception of higher environmental benefits rather than the other way around.

Experiments are uniquely placed to establish a causal link between behavioural factors and decision-making. Second, experiments can contribute to addressing some of the issues related to self-declared measures, which are largely used in the reported research. Social desirability bias may come into play when directly asking farmers about their motivations and the causes of their decisions, such as how influenced they are by significant others Greiner, ; Yeboah, Lupi and Kaplowitz, or the extent to which signalling motives are important to them when adopting sustainable practices Pavlis et al.

Farmers, like any individuals, may also be unaware of some of the reasons for their decisions Nisbett and Wilson, Moreover, a strategic bias might also be present, whereby farmers voluntarily alter the importance of some factors, such as the amount of compensation for agri-environmental schemes.

Experiments, in contrast, allow most of these biases to be avoided Colen et al. In that respect, randomised controlled trials, and more generally extra-laboratory experiments Charness, Gneezy and Kuhn, , are especially warranted, as the fact that farmers are not aware of participating in an experiment precludes the introduction of many of the above-mentioned biases. Moreover, between-subject experimental designs are needed to ensure that participants are not aware of the experimentally manipulated variables, thereby reducing strategic bias.

We also think that field experiments involving farmers as opposed to students , thanks to their high contextualisation and high ecological validity, are more likely to be taken into consideration by policy-makers. Experimental research may be particularly relevant for cognitive and social factors; dispositional factors, given that they are very stable, may not be easily experimentally manipulated and may thus benefit less from the added value of experiments. Experiments can help us to better understand behavioural factors, but the opposite is also true: understanding behavioural factors can contribute to better-informed experiments in agricultural economics.


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A thorough theory-driven understanding of the behavioural factors, mechanisms and biases influencing farmer decision-making is sometimes lacking in these experiments. Therefore, there is a need to further incorporate behavioural insights and theories into experimental designs and into the interpretation of their results. We have organised the behavioural factors and the policy recommendations addressing them conceptually around three clusters: dispositional, social and cognitive.

These clusters were placed on a distal—proximal spectrum depending on their proximity to the decision to adopt specific sustainable practices. Our review shows that extraversion, openness to new experiences, risk seeking, moral and environmental concern, as well as lifestyle farming objectives are associated with higher adoption of sustainable practices. Conversely, being resistant to change and moved by economic objectives makes farmers reluctant to convert.

From a policy perspective, this heterogeneity of farmers on these dispositional factors can be addressed by indirectly segmenting them according to sociodemographic and geographic characteristics and by designing appropriate mixes of mandatory and voluntary schemes. Farmers are more likely to adopt sustainable practices when most neighbouring farmers have done so, when they follow the opinion of social referents who support adoption, and when they are willing to gain social status.

Cognitive factors relate to learning and reasoning about specific sustainable practices. Adoption of specific sustainable practices is higher when farmers have sufficient knowledge and competences related to these practices, and when they think these practices bring environmental or financial benefits with limited risks. The application of behavioural insights to policy-making began by focussing on consumers and citizens, using nudge approaches targeting System 1 i. Leveraging a behavioural approach to design and evaluate policies targeting farmers — who tend to make relatively thoughtful, System 2 decisions when it comes to farming — is, in contrast, still novel.

The policy options put forward in the paper deal mainly with general principles to be taken into account when promoting the adoption of sustainable farming practices, as the evidence reviewed here is not specific enough to be more concrete. To address this issue, we have highlighted research gaps that need to be filled, mostly by experimental methods. Pre-testing the impact of these behavioural factors on farmer decision-making can, in turn, lead to more effective agri-environmental policies, a crucial challenge in view of the enhanced environmental and climate ambitions for the future Common Agricultural Policy.

The authors would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers of this paper, who provided extremely useful feedback on earlier versions, as well as the participants to the coaching workshop gathering the authors of the papers submitted to the present special issue Montpellier, June and participants to the second workshop of the Research Network on Economic Experiments for the CAP Vienna, September for relevant insights. The views expressed in this article do not imply an official policy position of the European Commission. Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford.

It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Sign In or Create an Account. Sign In. Advanced Search. Article Navigation. Close mobile search navigation Article Navigation. Volume Article Contents. Farmer decision-making and behavioural factors. Dispositional factors. Social factors. Cognitive factors. Corresponding author: E-mail: francois. Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation.

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Permissions Icon Permissions. Open in new tab Download slide. The World Development Report World Bank Group, does make dozens of references to the application of behavioural insights to agricultural policy, but all of the reported cases concern developing countries and very few cases relate to actual policy-led interventions as opposed to researcher-led field trials. When reviewing studies that link behavioural factors to the adoption of sustainable practices, we report them as they were labelled by the authors. In some cases, studies focus on broad combinations of multiple practices e.

For instance, smoking is a documented behavioural factor causing lung cancer.