Ag Professionals Identify Cognitive Biases in Conservation Agriculture

During ISAP’s first convening of Alphabet Soup in 2022, over 60 conservation professionals, farmers, government agents, researchers, and industry representatives came together to talk about how behavioral science impacts their work in advancing conservation. Using eight cognitive biases that were identified in the Sand County Foundation report, “Making Conservation Conventional,” attendees participated in an interactive, task-oriented workshop which created opportunities to share experiences, identify cognitive biases they’ve encountered in their work, and develop new approaches to advancing conservation in agriculture.


Throughout the workshop, participants used an interactive design approach, similar to what was used in Sand County Foundation’s work with GRID Impact, to identify which cognitive biases they faced most often in their work. The following five biases were most frequently identified by participants, who shared real-world examples of how these biases have hindered the adoption of conservation practices and the advancement of conservation principles in their work.


Social Proof: Individuals look to others to see how to behave, especially in ambiguous situations, in crises, and when others are experts. Often, our understanding of what others are doing is flawed or incomplete, or their reasons for making a choice are simply not relevant to us.

Social proof was identified by Alphabet Soup participants as the cognitive bias they face most often when engaging with farmers around conservation principles. Only 5% of ag land in Illinois is currently incorporating an advanced soil health system, and it can be challenging for farmers to make changes when no one else in their area is making a similar change. Many advisers hear from farmers that they are concerned with social pressure to have their farm look a certain way throughout the year, worried that their fields will look “weedy compared to their neighbors” if they have cover crops planted. One group’s discussion emphasized the reality that the current agriculture system isn’t designed to support diversity – there are only a fixed number of local equipment dealers, seed sellers, and services in a given area. All of these examples of social proof affect the ability of agricultural advisers and conservation professionals to reach farmers and support their transition to conservation cropping systems.


Hassle Factor: Minor hassles like detailed paperwork, a multi-step process, or unclear next steps can prevent us from taking actions with large payoffs. Conversely, if we expect something to be hassle-free, we might stop and get frustrated when a hassle appears.

For farmers, incorporating conservation practices into their operations certainly isn’t hassle free. The nature of farming is an interconnected system where one adjustment often affects the overall operation. It can be a challenge to know where to start – for farmers and advisers alike – and the data collection, paperwork, and consultation meetings can be off-putting to many. It is critical for advisers and conservation advocates to understand the specific hurdles farmers are facing and be prepared to provide resources to alleviate these challenges.


Status Quo Bias: The tendency to prefer for things to stay relatively the same. People tend not to change an established behavior unless the incentive to do so is compelling enough. This is less reflective of strong beliefs or thoughtful decision-making and more a matter of comfort and routine.

Our modern industrial agriculture system is only about sixty years old, but this is long enough to become the only type of farming known by many farmers. It took three generations to become the dominant system, with related development of supporting industry and policy infrastructure. Creating dramatic change within that system will be difficult to do in the timeframe that is demanded by climate change. Moving away from the systems in place, even incrementally, was a common challenge identified by several breakout groups. Some of the barriers are procedural – short term cash rent is the norm for most farmers in the Midwest, creating additional challenges for long term adoption of conservation principles. And some barriers are psychological – farmers may have difficulty visualizing the changes they need to make because they have only been exposed to the “status quo” of conventional farming.


Present BiasWhen making a decision, we pay much more attention to costs and benefits that happen now and tend to ignore the long-term consequences, especially when they may be uncertain, hard to quantify, or accrue from many small actions over time.

Several breakout groups identified present bias as a force that is holding back farmers from taking the leap into sustainable agriculture. Many farmers feel satisfied with how their operation is running now, and don’t see a need for change. For these farmers, receiving information can be off-putting because they feel accused of doing things incorrectly. And for those who are interested in change, the prevalence of short-term leases presents a significant burden by limiting access to the long-term benefits of conservation practices, thereby forcing farmers to focus on what benefits they can gain in the short term.


Intention-Action GapThe disconnect between what a person wants to do and what they actually do.

Many farmers know there are certain areas of their fields that require action – a region that may have low yield, long periods of standing water, or be affected by higher rates of erosion. Even though farmers can usually identify where changes need to be made, the intention-action gap prevents putting plans into action and realizing change. Change of any sort, but especially changes to agriculture management, takes research, planning, consultation, and a willingness to try something new. By the time a farmer gets through the myriad daily and weekly tasks, they often don’t have the time or energy to start to something new and different.


ISAP’s Alphabet Soup, a network of agronomists, researchers, educators, conservation practitioners, and industry partners in Illinois, will continue to explore current issues, discuss strategies, and build collective capacity to advance nutrient loss reduction and conservation practices in Illinois agriculture. To get involved and hear about upcoming Alphabet Soup gatherings, please visit our Network of Practitioners webpage to join the Alphabet Soup mailing list.

ISAP Coordinator