Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Las Vegas, United States. Photo credit: Brook Anderson on Unsplash..
Testing the Effect of Peer-Driven Social Pressure on Leave No Trace Behaviors in Rock Climbers
Science & Research
December 2022 | Volume 28, Number 3
As outdoor climbing has increased in popularity, so has the potential for negative environmental impacts in the areas where climbing occurs. The present between-subjects experiment thus examined the impact of peer-driven social pressure on Leave No Trace (LNT) adherence in rock climbers. The results indicated that climbers were more likely to adhere to LNT behaviors when climbing partners encouraged LNT behaviors than when climbing partners were neutral. Findings also indicated that while climbers perceive themselves to be knowledgeable about LNT practices, there is a gap in understanding how LNT specifically relates to the sport.
Rock climbing is a rapidly growing sport, leading more individuals to recreate in outdoor settings. The growth of indoor climbing gyms throughout the United States grew 8.24% in 2021, showing higher rates of increase from 2019 (5.07%) and 2020 (5.41%), and between 1,000 and 1,500 people try climbing for the first time every day (Access Fund 2020; Climbing Business Journal 2020). Popular outdoor climbing and recreation areas have also seen notable growth, with Calico Basin in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, reporting a 340% percent increase in visitors since 2003 and New River Gorge setting a visitor record in 2021 (Bureau of Land Management 2019; Tate 2022). Recent estimates indicate that over 2.5 million climbers climb outdoors in over 30,000 climbing areas (Climbing Business Journal 2020; Ellison 2020; Outdoor Industry Association 2018). As outdoor climbing increases in popularity, so does the potential for negative environmental impacts in the areas where climbing occurs. Many popular climbing areas exist within protected conservation areas and National Parks, and in more remote wilderness areas. Thus, high-impact climbing practices (such as excessive bolting, removal of vegetation, littering, disruption of breeding areas, etc…) can lead to potentially harmful impacts to fragile and important ecosystems. For example, many climbing areas face environmental issues such as erosion, increases in micro trash, poor disposal of human waste, negative impacts to species diversity and abundance on the rock and disruption of breeding habitats, along with social impacts such as overcrowding and excessive noise (McMillan et al. 2003; Burgin and Hardiman 2012; Clark and Hessl, 2015; Covy et al. 2019; Access Fund 2006; 2021).
One method of addressing these impacts has been to apply Leave No Trace Principles (LNT). The LNT Principles are a framework of seven principles, often used by land managers and educators to promote minimal impact practices for those recreating in the outdoors (Leave No Trace 2015; 2021). The seven principles of LNT are as follows: plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors (Leave No Trace 2015; 2021). These seven principles have been adapted to address the impacts that rock climbers have on the natural environment by creating guidelines such as: be considerate of others; stay on trails whenever possible; respect wildlife, sensitive plants, and soil; park and camp in designated spaces and pack out all trash (Access Fund 2006; 2021). Despite the creation and dissemination of these activity-specific guidelines, difficulties remain with regard to the promotion, education, and adherence to LNT behaviors in rock climbers, pointing to the need to better understand the factors leading to LNT behaviors.
One potential framework for understanding the factors leading to LNT behaviors is the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB; Ajzen 1985; 1991; 2005), one of the most widely applied models of human behavior (Hasbullah et al. 2014). The TPB posits three covarying predictors of behavior: positive attitudes about the behavior (the extent to which an individual values or approves of the behavior), social pressure (the extent to which an individual is aware of behavioral norms and the value placed on those norms by organizations and peers), and self-efficacy (the belief in one’s ability to enact the behavior). The TPB has been previously applied to a variety of environmental and conservation behaviors (e.g. predictors of recycling, energy conservation, outdoor recreation, etc), including climbing-specific LNT behaviors (Schwartz et al. 2019; Taff et al. 2016). For example, previous studies examining the impact of positive attitudes about LNT on climbing-specific LNT behaviors in rock climbers have found that greater outdoor climbing experience was associated with more positive attitudes toward climbing-specific LNT behaviors (Schwartz et al. 2019), and that climbing-specific LNT behaviors were more likely to occur when participants had positive attitudes toward the behaviors (Taff et al. 2016).
While other studies do not explicitly apply the TPB to LNT in rock climbing, their findings are still consistent with the TPB. For example, Clark et al., (2020) conducted a survey study and found that greater awareness and knowledge of LNT principles was associated with greater self-reported application of these practices. Similarly, a survey study by Sharp and colleagues (2018) found that greater knowledge of LNT principles was associated with improved LNT adherence. Additionally, surveys conducted by the Access Fund, a leading climbing organization, indicate that organization-driven social pressure to protect the natural environment has resulted in greater stewardship efforts (Access Fund 2015; 2021; Maples et al. 2017). Consistent with the TPB, these findings support greater awareness of LNT behavioral norms and organization-driven social pressure as correlates of climbing-specific LNT behaviors. Taken together, the literature thus far indicates that LNT behaviors are more likely when rock climbers have greater education and awareness of the behaviors, experience organization-driven social pressure, and have more positive attitudes toward climbing-specific LNT behaviors.
To expand on our understanding of climbing-specific LNT behaviors, the present study examined peer-driven social pressure (social pressure exerted by peers and community members, rather than organizations and governing bodies) as a predictor of climbing-specific LNT behaviors. There is particularly good reason to consider peer-driven social pressure when examining reported LNT behaviors in rock climbers. Apart from its inclusion as a predictor of behavior in the TPB, there is a large literature base indicating that social pressure directly impacts human behavior, with peer-driven social pressure having a greater impact on reported behavior than organizational social pressure (for a review, see Cialdini & Goldstein 2004). Additionally, the nature of rock climbing can make it a social activity, as many types of climbing require a partner to belay or spot for safety. Climbing communities can also self-govern climbing behaviors, rules, and norms via social sanctions and rely on community and peer-driven influence to adhere to these norms (Carter 2019). For example, a recent incident in which a climber found a route bolted over petroglyphs in Utah’s Arches National Park (Johnson 2021). In this incident, the climber removed the bolts, informed the climbing community, and reported the incident to the Moab Bureau of Land Management. The ensuing community disapproval and condemnation of the route developer’s behavior exerted peer-driven social pressure on the route developer to apologize and to repair the damage to the rock, as well as reinforced the rule of not climbing on petroglyphs to the larger climbing community. A second example examines route developing ethics in Ten Sleep, Wyoming (Gartner 2019), in which the route developers manufactured holds into the natural rock. In response, a group of climbers who determined the practice as unethical defaced the manufactured routes, leading to condemnation of both parties by the greater climbing community. This condemnation resulted in ongoing discussions between climbing organizations and the National Forest Service to create a management plan for future development ethics. It is thus possible that the nature of climbing, and the climbing community make peer-driven social pressure a particularly important factor leading to climbing specific-LNT adherence.
In sum, land managers experience continued challenges with LNT adherence in rock climbers. To address this, further research is necessary to better understand the factors leading to LNT adherence in rock climbers. As such, the present study aimed to expand our knowledge of climbing-specific LNT behavior by examining the impact of peer-driven social pressure on climbing specific-LNT behaviors experimentally. The study utilized a between-subjects experimental vignette study to better establish directionality. We hypothesized that, controlling for outdoor climbing experience, preferred climbing type, and LNT principles knowledge, individuals would rate themselves as more likely to adhere to climbing-specific LNT behaviors when climbing partners encouraged LNT behaviors (peer-driven social pressure condition), than when climbing partners were neutral about LNT behaviors (neutral pressure condition).
We advertised this Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved study by engaging climbing organizations (e.g. Access Fund, regional climbing coalitions, The Common Climber, Flash Foxy, Kanaka Climbers, etc.) to post about the study on email newsletters, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. We used non-statistical convenience sampling to choose these partners based on community partner willingness and availability, as there is no population census of climbing-related organizations. The online Qualtrics study was advertised as examining “outdoor ethics and recreation behaviors in rock climbers,” and was open to all individuals meeting the inclusion criteria of being over 18 and being a rock climber of any type. All participants were randomly assigned by Qualtrics to one of two conditions: the peer-driven social pressure condition or the neutral pressure condition. Participants in the peer-driven social pressure condition received vignettes where climbing partners encouraged LNT behaviors; participants in the neutral pressure condition received vignettes where climbing partners were neutral about LNT behaviors. A total of 406 participants (peer-driven social pressure = 203; neutral pressure = 203) participated in the study. Of the 406 participants, 35 participants (peer-driven social pressure = 15; neutral pressure = 20) did not complete at least 80% of outcome measures and were thus dropped from the analysis. Our final sample was 371 (peer-driven social pressure = 188; neutral pressure = 183). The demographic characteristics and climbing preferences of our sample can be seen in Tables 1 and 2, respectively. Of note, we utilized a non-statistical convenience sample due to the lack of any population census of the climbing community.
Vignettes and Scoring
Participants were presented with a total of four vignettes (Figure 1), each describing a situation in which a climbing LNT-consistent behavior could be taken. The four situations were taken from a study conducted by Taff and colleagues (2016), which identified them as the four behaviors that climbers were least likely to engage in. Following a description of the situation, participants were provided information indicating that their climbing partners either encouraged or were neutral about the LNT behavior. Participants randomized to the peer-driven social pressure condition only received information indicating that their climbing partners encouraged the LNT behavior, while participants randomized to the neutral pressure condition only received information indicating that their climbing partners were neutral about the LNT behavior. To keep the vignettes and LNT behaviors realistic, encouragement in the peer-driven social pressure consisted of climbing partners realistically modeling or suggesting the LNT behavior. The neutral pressure condition consisted of climbing partners expressing no preference and deferring to the participant.
Demographics Questionnaire. Although demographic variables are not central constructs in this study, we asked participants to identify the following characteristics to aid us in accurately describing our sample: age, gender identity, race, education, and household income. These items were chosen based on models of cultural identity, which indicate these factors as important identities to account for in understanding humans (Hays 2001).
Climbing Experience Questionnaire. Given previous findings that climbing experience and climbing type may impact LNT adherence (Taff et al. 2016; Schwartz et al. 2019), we asked participants to provide data on years of outdoor climbing experience and their preferred climbing type. Outdoor climbing experience was measured in years as a continuous variable and preferred climbing type was measured as a categorical variable.
Likelihood. After each vignette, participants were asked to rate how likely they were to take the LNT behavior using a 1 (not at all likely) to 7 (very likely) scale. The sum of these ratings was used to create a score for likelihood to adhere to LNT behaviors.
LNT Knowledge and Attitudes Subscales (LNT-KAS; Schwartz et al. 2019). To control for LNT knowledge, we adapted Schwartz’s 14-item LNT-KAS for our study. The original LNT-KAS asks respondents to rate the perceived appropriateness of 13 climbing-specific LNT behaviors, as well as their perceived expertise on general LNT principles, to create two subscales (climbing LNT and global LNT). Respondents rate items using a 1 (very inappropriate, none) to 7 (very appropriate, expert) scale. Our adapted LNT-KAS (Figure 2) asked respondents to rate the four climbing-specific LNT behaviors represented in our vignettes, as well as their perceived expertise on general LNT principles, to create two subscales (climbing LNT and global LNT), for a total of five questions. Climbing LNT was a four-item subscale that consisted of the sum of the vignette ratings. Global LNT was a single-item subscale that consisted of the perceived expertise rating.
After completing informed consent on via Qualtrics, participants were randomized to either receive vignettes in which a climbing partner encouraged LNT behaviors (peer-driven social pressure condition) or vignettes in which a climbing partner was neutral about LNT behaviors (neutral pressure condition). Participants then completed the Demographics questionnaire, Climbing Experience Questionnaire, and the LNT-KAS.
We hypothesized that, controlling for outdoor climbing experience, preferred climbing type, and LNT principles knowledge, individuals would rate themselves as more likely to adhere to climbing-specific LNT behaviors when climbing partners encouraged adherence to LNT behaviors (peer-driven social pressure condition), than when climbing partners were neutral about LNT behaviors (neutral pressure condition). To test this hypothesis, we conducted an ANCOVA. The independent variable was condition (peer-driven social pressure versus neutral pressure), and the dependent variable was Likelihood. The LNT_KAS, LNT_Global, outdoor climbing experience, and climbing preference were entered as covariates.
Table 3 provides the descriptive statistics for all continuous outcome variables and covariates. All skewness and kurtosis values were within acceptable ranges. To examine differences in covariates and demographics between conditions, we conducted t-tests for continuous and chi-square analyses for categorical variables. Age, gender, race, education, income, LNT_KAS scores, LNT_Global scores, outdoor climbing experience, and preferred climbing type did not significantly differ between groups (ps = .15-.75). Likelihood scores between groups also did not differ between age, gender, race, income, and education (ps = .15-.84).
The results indicated that participants in the peer-driven social pressure condition had significantly higher Likelihood ratings than those in neutral pressure condition with a large effect (F(1, 357) = 61.65, p < .001, ηp2 = .15). Of the covariates, only LNT_KAS was significantly associated with Likelihood (positive association) with a large effect (F(1, 357) = 95.40, p < .001, ηp2 = .21). Climbing preference (F(1, 357) = 1.76, p = .19, ηp2 = .01), outdoor experience (F(1, 357) = 1.40, p =.24, ηp2 < .01), and LNT_Global (F(1, 357) = .82, p = .37, ηp2 <.01) were not significantly associated with Likelihood.
Despite the publication and dissemination of climbing LNT guidelines, land managers continue to experience difficulties with LNT adherence in rock climbers, pointing to the need for better understanding the factors leading to LNT adherence (Access Fund, 2006; 2021; Leave No Trace, 2015; 2021). As such, the purpose of this between-subjects experiment was to examine the impact of peer-driven social pressure on LNT adherence in rock climbers. We hypothesized that, controlling for outdoor climbing experience, preferred climbing type, and LNT principles knowledge, individuals would rate themselves as more likely to adhere to climbing-specific LNT behaviors when climbing partners encouraged LNT behaviors (peer-driven social pressure condition), than when climbing partners were neutral about LNT behaviors (neutral pressure condition).
The results indicated that, controlling for outdoor climbing experience, preferred climbing type, and LNT principles knowledge, participants in the peer-driven social pressure condition rated themselves as more likely to engage in climbing LNT behaviors than those in the neutral pressure condition. This finding is consistent with the literature on peer-driven social pressure, which indicates that peer-driven social pressure to enact a behavior increases the likelihood of that behavior (Cialdini & Goldstein 2004). Given these results, it is likely that capitalizing on the social nature of the climbing community to encourage our peers to take climbing-specific LNT behaviors will increase adherence to climbing-specific LNT behaviors.
Of all the covariates in our model, only knowledge of climbing-specific LNT was significantly associated with a greater likelihood to engage in climbing LNT behaviors. Strikingly, participants’ perceived knowledge of general LNT principles was not significantly associated with a likelihood to engage in climbing LNT behaviors. These results indicate that, despite individuals being familiar with general LNT principles, they are unfamiliar with the specific applications of LNT principles to rock climbing. As such, it is likely that individuals are unaware of what is and is not a climbing-specific LNT behavior. Such findings point to the importance of educating community members about climbing-specific LNT behaviors so as to increase both individual and community adherence to the principles.
“Given these results, it is likely that capitalizing on the social nature of the climbing community to encourage our peers to take climbing-specific LNT behaviors will increase adherence to climbing-specific LNT behaviors.”
Notably, with all variables in the model, participants’ preferred type of climbing and years of outdoor climbing experience were not significantly associated with a likelihood to engage in climbing LNT behaviors. The findings here are initially surprising, when considering Schwartz and colleagues’ findings that greater outdoor bouldering experience was associated with more positive attitudes about climbing LNT behaviors in boulderers (2019). The discrepancy in findings here may be a result of differences in measurement, in that our study only controlled for years of outdoor experience, whereas Schwartz and colleagues (2019) utilized a composite score examining both years of outdoor experience and bouldering ability. Additionally, it is possible that these trends, while present in boulderers, are absent when examining rock climbers in general. However, it is also likely that although greater experience is associated with positive attitudes towards LNT, it is neither associated with greater knowledge nor likelihood of enacting climbing LNT behaviors. This conclusion is supported by post-hoc analyses indicating that, although years of outdoor experience knowledge was positively associated with greater perceived knowledge of general LNT principles (r = .19, p < .001), neither were associated with actual knowledge of climbing specific-LNT behaviors (r = .00, p = .94; r = .00, p = .93, respectively). Taken together, the findings here indicate that although climbers with more years of outdoor experience tend to perceive themselves as having greater LNT knowledge, they do not have greater actual knowledge of climbing specific LNT behaviors. These findings may be the result of shifting norms as LNT research is updated (e.g. the shift towards using wag bags from catholes), as well as lack of education on climbing specific-LNT behaviors.
Limitations and Future Directions
Our study should be considered in the context of several limitations. First, our use of vignettes may have resulted in participants overestimating their likelihood to take the LNT behaviors because they thought that they should, rather than would, adhere to LNT. While the moderate mean (mean = 20.69, SD = 4.44) and wide range of scores (6 to 28) in our data likely control for the presence of such a ceiling effect, future research should aim to examine the effects of social pressure on LNT.
Additionally, our measures of likelihood were not formally evaluated for reliability and validity. However, based on ratings by a team of research assistants, the measures possessed good face validity. In addition, each of the items was taken from, or slightly adapted from, established measures of those constructs. To address this limitation, future studies should more formally evaluate the reliability and validity of measures.
Finally, our sample predominantly consisted of White, college educated, upper middle class, cisgender men and women. While this lack of diversity is similarly present in the current United States climbing population, the lack of representation of minoritized identities is striking and worth addressing both in terms of research and community access to the sport. As such, future research and climbing organizations could build partnerships with affinity groups created by minoritized climbers, to better represent their voices and to increase access. Additionally, because our sample was a non-statistical convenience sample (due to the lack of a population census), our sample may not be an accurate representation of the climbing population. As such, it is possible that our findings do not generalize to the greater climbing population.
As our results indicated, participants in the peer-driven social pressure condition rated themselves as more likely to engage in climbing-specific LNT behaviors than those in the neutral pressure condition. Given these results, it is likely that capitalizing on the social nature of the climbing community to encourage our peers to take climbing-specific LNT behaviors will increase LNT adherence, thus likely leading to less instances of rock climbers straying from designated trails, improperly disposing of waste and trash, and more instances of climbers utilizing minimal-impact climbing practices such as cleaning chalk, respecting wildlife and choosing to avoid climbing in areas more susceptible to ecological harm This data provides support for the promise of peer-to-peer engagement opportunities, mentorship, and on the ground encouragement or modeling, along with top-down approaches such as introducing climbing specific signage in relevant areas or engaging in climbing stewardship programs to promote on the ground education and positive enforcement of LNT behaviors.
Additionally, the results indicated there is a gap in knowledge of what LNT is and how it can be applied to outdoor climbing. This provides opportunities for stakeholders such as climbers, land managers, climbing gyms, and local climbing organizations (LCOs) to collaborate on setting conventional, place-based norms and to promote educational efforts that specifically center climbing-related LNT practices in order to minimize potentially harmful and impactful behaviors. In sum, our results suggest that implementing aspects of social pressure to LNT messaging, outreach and education, along with increasing climbing-specific LNT knowledge, may promote better adherence to LNT by climbers, in particular those who engage in climbing outdoors in protected areas and in backcountry settings, and thus decreasing the negative ecological impacts the sport has on outdoor spaces.
About the Authors
CAROL S. LEE is a senior research scientist at the Developer Insights Lab at Pluralsight Flow and former assistant professor of Psychology at Nevada State; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
TANYA A. DREIZIN is a PhD student in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and board member of the Hawaii Climbing Coalition; email: email@example.com
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In this issue of IJW, we remember Dave Foreman as a father tree for wilderness. Carol Lee and Tanya Dreizin investigate peer-driven social pressures for behavior in rock climbers. Keely Fisher examines virtual reality and the impact of wilderness conceptualizations. Gracie Dunlap describes living along¬side the Yawanawá. And John Shultis uses creative expression and the arts to demonstrate the impact of wild places.
We all adapted to changes, some societal and many personal, over the past several years. Now comes the opportunity to reconnect and reengage in our passions for wilderness and wild nature.
The wilderness community and the global rewilding movement pay tribute to a founding father. Dave Foreman changed and expanded the way we do conservation in North America.