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CBEAR and its network of researchers applies insights from behavioral economics to better understand how and why people make decisions, and this research will ultimately help the USDA and its partners make programs better for farmers.

If you haven’t read about CBEAR’s 3 Big Initiatives, check them out HERE.

In addition to the 3 Big Initiatives, CBEAR has a range of prior and ongoing research projects.


Improving Voluntary Incentive Programs

Conservation on private farmlands in the US is largely encouraged via a patchwork of voluntary incentive programs implemented by federal and state agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations and private sector actors. Similar programs exist in the EU. Billions of dollars are invested in these programs each year. Building on insights from the behavioral sciences, CBEAR tests innovative ideas to make these programs more cost-effective.

Example 1: Ag Values Project

Small changes in the decision environments, such as the starting bid values in auctions or the framing of conservation practices, can improve the cost-effectiveness of agri-environmental programs.

Reference FERAL PIGS (1-2-06) canet road, morro bay, slo co, ca

(Reference: “FERAL PIGS (1-2-06) canet road, morro bay, slo co, ca”by Sloalan is marked with CC0 1.0”)

Example 2: NOLS Project

Conservation programs are generally targeted at the farmer or “operator,” i.e., the person who grows the crops. These operators, however, are often not the same people who own the land.

Reference: File: Washington Crossing NJ State Park Delaware River looking across to PA.JPG

(Reference: “File:Washington Crossing NJ State Park Delaware River looking across to PA.JPG” by Tomwsulcer is marked with CC0 1.0”)

Improving Conservation Communication and Outreach Programs

Most agri-environmental programs involve communication and outreach to farmers, ranchers, and private woodland owners. Building on insights from the behavioral sciences, CBEAR tests the prevailing wisdom about conservation outreach, as well as new innovative ideas for more effectively engaging agricultural producers. The goal is to identify how programs can be made more attractive to producers, more effective in encouraging the adoption of sound conservation practices and more likely to bring about the environmental improvements that everyone wants.

Example 1: Histosols

Should outreach materials offer farmers multiple options for action? Should outreach materials link farm practices to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change? Often the only way to know is to experimentally test different outreach options.

Reference: Soil Health_NR_05 by NRCS Montana is marked with CC PDM 1.0

(Reference: “Soil Health_NR_05” by NRCS Montana is marked with CC PDM 1.0)

Example 2: NACD Project

Conservation districts in the U.S. coordinate conservation activities on the ground. When they coordinate their activities nationally, they may have larger conservation impacts in their districts.

Reference: 20120106-OC-AMW-0350 by USDAgov is marked withCC PDM 1.0

(Reference: “20120106-OC-AMW-0350” by USDAgov is marked withCC PDM 1.0)

Understanding Financial Decision-making among Farmers

The field of behavioral economics has documented that consumers are not always rational, have limits to their self-control, and are influenced by their psychological biases. Less well understood is the degree to which those same psychological factors influence farmer decisions and what those factors imply for the design of agricultural policies and programs. Using methodologies from behavioral and experimental economics, CBEAR seeks to clarify the psychological factors of decision-making that are relevant to the design and implementation of agri-environmental programs.

Example 1: Discounting  Because both farming and conservation are fundamentally about spending money and time now to obtain returns in the future, farm programs need to understand how farmers tradeoff benefits now for benefits later. Yet direct measurement of how U.S. farmers discount future benefits is rare.

Example 2: Risk attitudes  Farmers’ attitudes towards uncertainty determine their input investments, their insurance choices, and their contract choices. Behavioral science has illustrated that these attitudes can be malleable and context-dependent, yet direct measurement of these attitudes among U.S. farmers is rare.

Understanding Private Sector Incentives for Improved Agri-Environmental Outcomes

Private sector incentives become increasingly important as consumers pay more attention to the environmental issues related to the food supply chain. Environmental benefits are often communicated to consumers via product labels and government and third-party organizations often set standards that farmers must meet to gain access to specialized markets. The objectives and mechanisms of these private sector incentives differ from those of public sector agri-environmental programs. Thus, it is important to better understand why, how, and how well private sector standards function and promote better agri-environmental outcomes.

Example 1: SMARRT Foods Project.  Consumers face a wide array of food labels, many of which highlight the lower environmental impacts of certain agricultural production processes.  Our research examines consumer demand for these types of food and how this demand impacts the decision of the agricultural food supply.CBEAR 2020

Example 2:  CONSERVE Project Ag Values Project.  Water shortages are impacting many areas of the United States and the world – and the agricultural sector is the largest user of freshwater.  Technologies exist to recycle water and provide treated wastewater for use in irrigation, yet food grown with recycled wastewater faces consumer resistance.  Our research examines this resistance and tests ways to overcome this potential stigmatization in order to promote better environmental outcomes.

To see an example of how we translate our research into program and policy advice, see our FPAC training modules on “Selling Conservation” at the NRCS National Employee Development Center. 


See the latest brochure.

List of CBEAR publications

Making More Effective Use of Behavioural Science in Conservation Interventions. Balmford, A, Bradbury, R., Bauer, JM, Broad, S., Burgess, G., Burgman, M., Byerly, H., Clayton, S.,  Espelosin, D., Ferraro, PJ,  Fisher, B., Garnett, EE, Jones, JPG, Marteau, T., Otieno, M., Polasky, S., Ricketts, TH, Sandbrook, C., Trevelyan, R., van der Linden, S., Veríssimo, D., Nielsen, KS. 2021. Biological Conservation.

Using a Randomized Controlled Trial to Develop Conservation Strategies on Rented Farmlands.  Weigel, C%, S. Harden, Y Masuda, P Ranjan, C Wardropper, PJ Ferraro, L Prokopy, S Reddy. 2021. Conservation Letters.

Biodiversity Conservation as a Promising Frontier for Behavioural Science. Nielsen, K. S., Marteau, T., Bauer, JM, Bradbury, RB, Broad, S., Burgess, G., Burgman, M., Byerly, H., Clayton, S.,  Espelosin, D., Ferraro, PJ,  Fisher, B., Garnett, EE, Jones, JPG, Otieno, M., Polasky, S., Ricketts, TH, Trevelyan, R., van der Linden, S., Veríssimo, D., Balmford, A. 2021. Nature Human Behaviour.

A Story Induces Greater Environmental Contributions than Scientific Information among Political Liberals but not Conservatives. Byerly, H, PJ Ferraro, T Li, K Messer, C Weigel. 2021. One Earth 4: P545-552. Infographic

Conservation Outreach that Acknowledges Human Contributions to Climate Change does not Inhibit Action by U.S. farmers: Evidence from a large randomized controlled trial embedded in a federal program on soil health. Ferraro, PJ, J Fooks, R Iovanna, J Larson, B Meiselman, M. Kecinski, K Messer, M Wilson. 2021. PLoS One.

Rented Farmland: The Missing Piece of the Nutrient Management Puzzle in the Upper Mississippi River Basin? Masuda, Y, S Harden, P Ranjan, C Wardropper, C Weigel, PJ Ferraro, S Reddy, L Prokopy. 2021. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.

Paying Americans to Take the Vaccine – Would it help or backfire? Robertson, C, D Scheitrum, A Schaefer, T Malone, B McFadden, PJ Ferraro, K Messer. 2021. Journal of Law and the Biosciences.

The Problem of Feral Hogs and the Challenges of Providing a Weak-link Public Good. Ellis, S, M Masters, K Messer, C Weigel, PJ Ferraro. 2021. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 43(3): 985–1002.

Is there a Replicability Crisis on the Horizon for Environmental and Resource Economics? Ferraro, PJ, P Shukla%. 2020. Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 14(2)

The Effect of Peer Comparisons on Polluters: A randomized field experiment among wastewater dischargers. Earnhart, D, PJ Ferraro. 2020. Environmental and Resource Economics.

Conservation Behavior and Effects of Economic and Environmental Message Frames. Reddy, S, C Wardropper, C Weigel%, Y Masuda, S Harden, P Ranjan, J Getson, L Esman, PJ Ferraro, L Prokopy. 2020. Conservation Letters.

Challenges in Recruiting U.S. Farmers for Policy-Relevant Economic Field Experiments. Weigel, C%, LA Paul, PJ Ferraro, KD Messer. 2021. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 43(2): 556-572.

The Behavioural Effect of Electronic Home Energy Reports: Evidence from a randomised field trial in the United States. Henry, M*, PJ Ferraro, A Kontoleon. 2019. Energy Policy 132: 1256-1261.

A Field Experiment to Estimate the Effects of Anchoring and Framing on Residents’ Willingness to Purchase Water Runoff Management Technologies. Li, T, J Fooks, K Messer, and PJ Ferraro. 2021 .  Resource and Energy Economics. 63: 101107.

Behavioral and Experimental Agri-environmental Research: Methodological Challenges, Literature Gaps, and Recommendations. Palm-Forster, L, PJ Ferraro, N Janusch, C Vossler, KD Messer. 2019. Environmental and Resource Economics 73(4): 973-993.

Nudging Pro-environmental Behavior: Evidence and opportunities. Byerly, H, A Balmford, PJ Ferraro, W Hammond, E Palchak, S Polasky, T Ricketts, A Schwartz, B Fisher. 2018. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

Applying Behavioral Insights to Improve Water Security. Ferraro, PJ, KD Messer, S Wu. 2017. Choices, Quarter 32(4): 1-6.

Behavioral Science Tools for Energy and Environmental Policy. Yoeli, E. et al. 2017. Behavioral Science and Policy 3(1), 69–79.

Addressing Participant Inattention in Federal Programs: A Field Experiment with the Conservation Reserve Program. Wallander, S., PJ Ferraro, N Higgins. 2017. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 99(4): 914-931.

Mitigating Stigma Associated with Recycled Water: Aquifer Recharge and Trophic Levels. Ellis, S.F., O. Savchenko, and K.D. Messer. Forthcoming. American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

Stewardship Signaling and Use of Social Pressure to Reduce Nonpoint Source Pollution. Palm-Forster, L.H., M. Griesinger, J.M. Butler, J.R. Fooks, K.D. Messer. Forthcoming. Land Economics.

The Impact of Expiration Dates on Hedonic Markets for Perishable Products. Li, T., K.D. Messer, and H.M. Kaiser. 2020.. Food Policy.

A Case for Measuring Negative Willingness to Pay for Consumer Goods. Bass, D.A., B.R. McFadden, and K.D. Messer. 2021. Food Policy.

Fear of Fraud and Willingness to Pay for Hybrid Maize Seed in Kenya. Gharib M.H., L.H. Palm-Forster, T.J. Lybbert, and K.D. Messer. 2021. Food Policy

Some Taxes Are Better Than Others: An Economic Experiment Analyzing Groundwater Management in a Spatially Explicit Aquifer. Duke, J.M., Z. Liu, J.F. Suter, K.D. Messer, and H.A. Michael. F2020. Water Resources Research.

Consumer Perceptions After Long Term Use of Alternative Irrigation Water: A Field Experiment in Israel. Ellis, S.F., M. Kecinski, K.D. Messer, and C. Lipchin. 2021. Applied Economics Policy and Perspective.

Bidding Behavior in Auctions versus Posted Prices: Comparisons of Mean and Marginal Effect. Wu S., J.R. Fooks, T. Li., K.D. Messer, D.A. Delaney. 2021. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review. 50: 315-337.

Is There a Potential U.S. Market for Seaweed-Based Products? A Framed Field Experiment on Consumer Acceptance. Li., T, Ahsanuzzaman, and Kent D. Messer. 2021. Marine Resource Economics. 36(3).

COVID 19 Induced Stigma in U.S. Consumers: Evidence and Implications. McFadden B.R., T. Malone, M. Kecinski, and K.D. Messer. 2021. American Journal of Agricultural Economics. 103(2): 486-497.

Impact of Peer Comparisons and Firm Heterogeneity on Nonpoint Source Water Pollution: An Experimental Study. Wu, S, L.H. Palm-Forster, and K.D. Messer. 2021. Resource and Energy Economics. 63: 10142.

Barriers to Using Economic Experiments in Evidence‐Based Agricultural Policymaking. Rosch S., S.R. Skorbiansky, C. Weigel, K.D. Messer, and D. Hellerstein. 2021.  Applied Economics Policy & Perspectives. 43(2): 531-555.

Preferences for Local Food: Tourists versus Local Residents. Li, T. K.D. Messer, A. Mamadzhanov, and J. McCluskey. 2020. Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics. 68(4): 429-444.

Environmental and Regulatory Concerns during the COVID 19 Pandemic: Results from the Pandemic Food and Stigma Survey. Kecinski M., K.D. Messer, B.R. McFadden, and T. Malone. 2020. Environmental and Resource Economics. 74(4): 1139-1148.

Is This Food ‘Local’? Evidence from a Framed Field Experiment. Li, T., Ahsanuzzaman, and K.D. Messer. 2020. Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics. 45(2): 179-198.

Addressing Social Dilemmas with Mascots, Information, and Graphics. Butler, J.M., J.R. Fooks, K.D. Messer, and L.H. Palm-Forster. 2020. Economic Inquiry. 58(1): 150-168. 

Does Food Processing Mitigate Consumers’ Concerns about Crops Grown with Recycled Water? Savchenko, O.M., T. Li, M. Kecinski, and K.D. Messer. 2019. Food Policy. 88:101748.

Common Pool Resource Management at the Extensive and Intensive Margins: Experimental Evidence. Suter, J., S. Collie, J.M. Duke, K.D. Messer, and H.A. Michael. 2019.  Environmental and Resource Economics. 73(4): 973-993.

The Importance of Selecting the Right Messenger: A Framed Field Experiment on Recycled Water Products. Whiting A., M. Kecinski, T. Li, K.D. Messer, and J. Parker. 2019. Ecological Economics. 161: 1-8.

Reclaimed Water and Food Production: Cautionary Tales from Consumer Research. Savchenko, O., M. Kecinski, T. Li, and K.D. Messer. 2019. Environmental Research. 170: 320-331.

Experimental Evidence on Policy Approaches that Link Agricultural Subsidies to Water Quality Outcomes. Palm-Forster, L, J. Suter, and K.D. Messer. 2019. American Journal of Agricultural Economics. 101(1):109-133.

What’s in a Name? Branding Reclaimed Water. Ellis, S., O.M. Savchenko, and K.D. Messer. 2019. Environmental Research. 172: 384-393.

Fresh Foods Irrigated with Recycled Water: A Framed Field Experiment on Consumer Response. Savchenko, O., M. Kecinski, T. Li, K.D. Messer, and H. Xu. 2018. Food Policy. 80: 103-112.

Mitigating Public Concerns about Recycled Drinking Water: Leveraging the Power of Voting and Communication. Kecinski, M. and K.D. Messer. 2018. Water Resources Research. 54(8): 5300-5326.

Ignorance Is Bliss?: Experimental Evidence on Wine Produced from Grapes Irrigated with Recycled Water. Li, T., J. McCluskey, and K.D. Messer. 2018. Ecological Economics. 153: 100-110.

Behavioral Responses to Science-based Eco-labeling: Gold, Silver, or Bronze. Li, T., M. Kecinski, and K.D. Messer. 2018. Applied Economics. 50(39): 4250-4263.

The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less. Messer, K.D. and W.A. Allen. 2018. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

When Cleaning Too Much Pollution Can Be a Bad Thing: A Field Experiment of Consumer Demand for Oysters. Kecinski, M., K.D. Messer, and A.J. Peo. 2018. Ecological Economics. 146: 686-695.

The Effect of Information on Discriminatory-Price and Uniform-Price Reverse Auction Efficiency: An Experimental Economics Study of the Purchase of Ecosystem Services. Duke, J., K.D. Messer, L. Lynch, and T. Li. 2017. Strategic Behavior and the Environment. 7(1-2): 41-71.

Labeling Food Processes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Messer, K.D., M. Costanigro, and H. Kaiser. 2017. Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy. 39(3): 407-427. 

Consumer Preferences for Oyster Attributes: Field Experiments on Brand, Locality, and Growing Method. Kecinski, M., K.D. Messer, L. Knapp, and Y. Shirazi. 2017. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review. 46(2): 315-337.

Heterogeneous Preferences for Oysters: Evidence from Field Experiments. Li, T., M. Kecinski, and K.D. Messer. 2017. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review. 46(2): 296-314. 

When Does Public Information Undermine the Effectiveness of Reverse Auctions for the Purchase of Ecosystem Services? Messer K.D., J. Duke, L. Lynch, and T. Li. 2017. Ecological Economics. 134: 212-226.

Nudging Charitable Giving: Three Field Experiments. Zarghamee, H., K.D. Messer, J.R. Fooks, W.D. Schulze, S. Wu, and J. Yan. 2017. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics. 86: 137-149.

The Impact of Information on Behavior Under an Ambient-based Policy for Regulating Nonpoint Source Pollution. Miao, H., J. Fooks, T. Guilfoos, K.D. Messer, S.M. Pradhanang, J. Suter, S. Trandafir, E. Uchida. 2016. Water Resources Research. 52: 3294-3308.

The Effects of Climate Change Information on Charitable Giving for Water Quality Protection: A Field Experiment. Ellis, S.F., J.R. F Fooks, K.D. Messer, and M.J. Miller. 2016. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review. 45(2): 319-337.

Stigma Mitigation and the Importance of Redundant Treatments. Kecinski, M., Kerley, D., K.D. Messer, and W.D. Schulze. 2016. Journal of Economic Psychology. 54: 44-52. 

Conserving Spatially Explicit Benefits in Ecosystem Service Markets: Experimental Tests of Network Bonuses and Spatial Targeting. Fooks, J.R., N. Higgins, K.D. Messer, J.M. Duke, D. Hellerstein, and L. Lynch. 2016. American Journal of Agricultural Economics. 98(2): 468-488.