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Making Coastal Decisions

NOAA Ocean Podcast: Episode 61

Our ocean and coasts affect us — and we affect them. Almost 40 percent of the country's population lives in coastal shoreline counties. And these counties contribute more than 9 trillion dollars to the U.S. economy. But many challenges face our coasts, like climate change, rising sea levels, more intense storms, and population growth. So we must make sound decisions today to help our coasts continue to thrive tomorrow. This podcast is the second installment in a three-part series from the U.S. Global Change Research Program that explores how we make these decisions. In this episode, we explore what the latest behavioral science research can tell us about how we make conservation and environmental decisions.

A New Jersey beach with a view of the New York City skyline.

Behavioral science can shed light on how we make conservation and environmental decisions, such as how we develop our coastal areas. In this episode, listen to an interview with Philipe Bujold, a behavioral scientist with Rare's Center for Behavior & the Environment. Chris Parsons, a communications and policy specialist for the Oceans Division of the National Science Foundation, interviews him. Pictured here: a New Jersey beach with a view of the New York City skyline. View Transcript

Dr. Philipe Bujold

Philipe Bujold

Dr. Philipe Bujold is a behavioral scientist at Rare's Center for Behavior & the Environment where he translates the latest insights from the behavioral sciences into real-world conservation and environmental interventions.

Dr. Chris Parsons

Chris Parsons

Dr. Chris Parsons is a policy and communication specialist and a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the National Science Foundations’ Division of Ocean Sciences.

About This Series

This is the second installment of a three-part series exploring how we make decisions about developing, protecting, and conserving our coastal areas. The podcasts were developed collaboratively with the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Coasts Interagency Group and funded by the Adaptation Sciences (AdSci) Program in NOAA's Climate Program Office. 

This special three-part series is from the Coasts Interagency Group of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. This is a federal program mandated by Congress to coordinate research and investments in understanding the human and natural forces shaping the global environment and their impacts on society. Members of the program include people from NOAA, along with NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy. The series was funded by Adaptation Sciences, or AdSci for short, a group out of NOAA's Climate Program Office.


HOST: This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast. I'm Troy Kitch. Today, we are continuing a three-part series brought to you by the Coasts Interagency Group of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The series explores how we make decisions about developing, protecting, and conserving our coastal areas — home to about 40 percent of the U.S. population. In the first episode of this series, we learned about equity and justice in coastal planning. Today, we explore what the latest behavioral science research can tell us about how we make conservation and environmental decisions. We'll hear from Philipe Bujold, a behavioral scientist with Rare's Center for Behavior & the Environment. He is interviewed by Chris Parsons, a communications and policy specialist for the Oceans Division of the National Science Foundation. Check our show notes for bios on our guests, links to more information, and details about the genesis of this series. You'll hear Chris Parsons first. Let's listen in.

CHRIS PARSONS: Thank you, Philipe, for joining us today and I'm really excited about asking you these questions about behavioral science. So my first question is, ocean scientists tend to try to convince members of the public about issues by presenting them with facts. Do we have any information on how successful a strategy this is? And what could scientists better do to connect with the public?

PHILIPE BUJOLD: Yeah, definitely. First of all, thank you for having me. It's a great pleasure to be here. And yeah, the, second part of the question I think is probably the first bit that I want to address. So what could scientists do better? Especially when it comes to facts and giving facts to members of the public. So when we think about traditional interventions to change people's behavior, facts are going to be the first thing. So can you give people facts or information about a specific behavior or a problem? But what we tend to rely a lot on also is regulating behaviors. So trying to stop people from doing something or encouraging them to do something. And also material incentives. So fines or even rewards. And those are the three traditional ways that we have of pushing people towards specific behaviors that we want them to partake in.

The reality of that, unfortunately, is that we don't necessarily always think in a way where these three types of interventions will actually lead to the behaviors that we want. The reason I say this is because we can define decision-making in two different ways. A lot of the time we think of it as very rational, slow, deliberate, and very conscious. But behavioral scientists define this as "system two", which intuitively means that there is a "system one" in the way that we make decisions. And that "system one" is actually the one that guides most of our decisions. It's irrational, it's fast, it's unconscious, and it's very, very effortless. Which means that most of our decisions are made by the system one. A few are made by system two, but using processes like information deficits (giving facts to people), using rules, regulations, or using material incentives only targets that system two bit, the one that's very rational and very conscious. So we're missing about 80% of the decisions that people make. So facts are great, but we need to be very careful with what situations we use them in because they're not always as effective as we think they are.

CHRIS PARSONS: Great. Thank you very much. So what you are saying essentially is that scientists are missing a major component of engaging with the public and interacting with the public.
PHILIPE BUJOLD: Yeah, exactly. So if you think of decision-making in these two types of systems, system one (which is most of our decisions) is very fast, irrational, and very effortless, and that's the one that's usually ignored. And that's really the most important one when it comes to daily decisions for most people. System two is the one we target, but it's the one that's really for a minimal set of decisions.

CHRIS PARSONS: Oh, very interesting. Because scientists are very often trained to be sort of unemotional and illogical. But really interacting with the public, we have to sort of embrace this emotional and irrational part of us.

PHILIPE BUJOLD: Exactly. So I think that comes from our training as scientists. We're so interested in a very specific topic that we tend to think that if we give people that information, they will agree with us and probably do the exact same thing that we do, right? Unfortunately that's not the reality of behavior. Actually behavioral science is now really, really growing. It includes the neurosciences, economics, psychology, and a lot of social sciences. These sciences combined have started to really pick at the different things that do affect the "system one" that I was talking about earlier, which really drives about 80% of our behaviors. And for that we can simplify this into three different categories.

The first one is that context really matters. So the way that choices are presented really, really matters to people. And you can imagine something where presenting it as a gain versus a loss can have a huge impact. So if I present, for example, solar energy to people and I focus on the cost of installation, then solar energy feels like a loss. But if you focus on the gains that come later on by saving on a utility bill, that feels like a gain. So context really matters. It's the same information, essentially, you're just choosing to present specific things in a different frame.

The second thing that's really important is that we're social animals. People have evolved to be in communities. We've evolved to be in groups, and that really, really matters when it comes to influencing our decisions. So a lot of the time we're going to refer to what we call social norms. Social norms are huge in guiding people's behavior, because we tend to want to conform to what other people are doing or what we think other people want us to do. So this second point is very, very important when it comes to decision making.

And then the last one is that, although we like to think that we're very rational with system two thinking, we're also very emotional, and actually emotions drive a lot more of our decisions than we like to think. And so the way that things are presented, the emotions that they engender, they really tend to sway people's decisions. And there's a great example here that came out a few years ago. Maybe a few of the listeners will remember, there's a video of a turtle with a straw in its nose. We all know the statistics, thousands of turtles die every year because of plastic pollution, but that one turtle with a straw is very, very powerful. And that's the kind of emotions that engender and change behavior. So three things to remember: 1) on top of basically material incentives, rules and information, we really need to start thinking about context; 2) we need to start thinking about social norms; and 3) we need to think about the emotions that our interventions engender in people.

CHRIS PARSONS: So you've mentioned a number of factors. Which are the most important when the public makes decisions?

PHILIPE BUJOLD: Yeah. So I wish I could give you a very straightforward answer for that. Like many things in science, however, the answer is "it depends," and it's going to depend on really what is driving the specific behavior that you're trying to change. So again referring to the "system one, system two" thinking earlier. System two is for a very narrow set of behaviors. For system one (about 80% of our decisions), we're going to be able to influence decisions with this "choice context" (sometimes called choice architecture), with the social norms I was talking about earlier, or with the emotions. But still that's 80% of behaviors and one of those three things might be better at specific behaviors than others, right? So for different situations you're going to be wanting to focus on different things, but there are some broad categories that fit across the board.

Especially for behaviors that require cooperation among people or where the results really matter when a lot of people cooperate, there's a quick toolkit that came out of MIT. They say there are these three items on a checklist that you really want to hit every time, and they really fit in those boxes I was talking about earlier. So the first thing that you want to do is to make sure that everyone in the community knows about the benefit of something. In this case, let's take the adoption of solar panels, for example. So here there's a great benefit. We know that it's sustainable. Doing that alleviates climate change. Great, you tell that to everyone.

The second thing you want to do is to make the behavior unambiguous and categorical. And the reason you wanna do this is because you don't want people to have the option to get away with not doing it; you don't want them to have plausible deniability. So that's the second thing you wanna do. You can tell people that, basically, people that have solar panels on their roof are the ones that are adopting the behavior. Everyone who doesn't are not doing it. So, easy. The behavior is observable, it's simple, everyone understands.

Then the last thing that you want to do is create the sense that it's the norm. And so usually you're going to do that by making the behavior very, very observable, but also you're going to make not engaging in the behavior very, very observable. So once people know what is correct or not correct and you've hit those other two things, usually you're well on your way for generating these cooperative behaviors.

For other types of behaviors that are a bit more complex, usually what you want to address is the uncertainty that people feel around adoption. I work a lot on climate smart agriculture, and that's something that is very ambiguous for people. And by "ambiguous" I mean people really don't know what climate smart agriculture means and farmers don't necessarily know exactly what practices they're going to have to adopt. It's not even that they expect that it might or might not work, they just don't know what to expect at all. In those cases, humans are very uncertainty averse ("ambiguity averse"). And so when that happens, it's much easier for us to go with something that we expect, even if we expect to lose, than something that is ambiguous, something we don't know what to expect from. So social norms are very powerful for cooperative behaviors, but really addressing that uncertainty in the way you frame a question and the way you generate emotions is going to be very important for these non-cooperative behaviors. So two buckets, but again, you always want to dig into it to figure out what's driving your situation.

CHRIS PARSONS: Ah, very interesting. So you mentioned renewable energy and this is something that is often a controversial issue in coastal areas, but it's something that the public is going to have to embrace for us to meet our climate change goals for reducing emissions. So you've worked on several renewable energy projects in the past. What did you find to be successful in these projects and were there any problems that you encountered? Can you tell us about your experiences?

PHILIPE BUJOLD: Yeah, there are many. I think the biggest one is to not rely on assumptions, and that's probably the biggest thing that a lot of us working in conservation do. We assume that something is going to work without actually having validated it, or without having built an evidence-based hypothesis. And so I want to put that at the top here because that's really going to be one of the main mistakes. And that has driven a few bad experiences that we've had with different intervention programs, where you build an entire intervention before realizing that ultimately that's not what was guiding behavior.

So, for example, in some of the work that I'm doing on agriculture, the assumption that is reigning in the field is this information deficit model that we referred to earlier. So people don't know about a behavior, they don't know how to do a behavior well. In some of the countries I work, actually that's very easy to address. The issue is that when people look around, they see that 90% of their neighbors are not adopting this behavior. They only have to look around to convince themselves that, well, there's probably a good reason for that, right? And that's also the case for other behaviors like adopting electric vehicles. A lot of the time you see no one else is doing it, so maybe it means that they're not ready yet. And you can think of that also when it comes to energy generation for oceans.

I worked recently on a project in Australia, where they're trying to regenerate some of the ocean front. People just don't know what that means, and they also don't know who's doing it, who's not doing it. So the ask isn't clear, people don't know what the benefits are, and they don't know that it's a norm. Actually it's not a norm because no one else is doing it, because no one wants to try! And so people keep giving information because they assume that that's what's going to change the behavior, but it's not actually working. So that's one of the big issues that we tend to see is that we rely on assumptions without having dug into what's causing a behavior.

CHRIS PARSONS: And talking about coastal projects like that, we're obviously going out on NOAA's podcast and many of the listeners are probably involved in coastal and marine issues where it's important for them to understand what local stakeholders think. What sort of behavioral science is important to do to help them better understand and better connect with local stakeholders so that their projects can be successful.

PHILIPE BUJOLD: Yeah, so I'm going to reframe that question a little bit, because it's not necessarily about the evidence that you need but rather about the process that you need to put in place or the framework that you need to put in place to be successful at changing behavior. So a great analogy that sometimes isn't super popular, but I'm going to say it anyways: you wouldn't necessarily trust "anyone" to build a building or a house, right? We all live in them, but you trust an architect or an engineer to build it. Well, it's the same with behavior. We all engage in it, but we need to start thinking about who the experts are on behavior that can really inform an intervention or a program that we want to be designing. And that's usually going to be behavioral scientists, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, or social scientists that are very good at getting to the crux of a problem and understanding what creates or reduces value for different communities.

So once you have that established and you've gotten the expertise that you need, another thing that's very important is to go through a design framework that really forces you to gather evidence to not just understand the communities you're working with, but mainly to focus on a behavior. And that's one of the biggest problems that teams are generally just not set up to do. We're usually designed to focus on information, to focus on a problem, not to focus on a specific behavior. And once you have that in place, you find out that things are a lot easier.

At Rare we have this behavioral design competition every year, where we essentially train startups to engage in different behavior and to start designing interventions about specific behaviors. Before that, they just run what they're used to. But once we've gone through the process, they focus on a specific behavior and usually the intervention is actually very different to what they had imagined. Because it's behavioral-based and not information-based, systems-based, or action-based, really it's based on the exact behavior that you need. So I think that's probably one of the main things that could actually help a lot of your listeners here in thinking about behavior change.

CHRIS PARSONS: So when scientists are putting together a proposal for a project and they're thinking about the social science, behavioral science, the outreach side of things, do they tend to think like a scientist in terms of numbers of things to do, numbers of workshops, numbers of interviews, or do they talk about changing the behavior of stakeholders?

PHILIPE BUJOLD: Yeah, definitely. I think one of the drivers of this is because oftentimes we have to report those numbers to either a funder, a grant, or a government body. I think we can start at the bottom, but we also need to start thinking behaviorally at every level of these interventions and at every level of this decision-making system, really. Too often even in our work, we're going to have grant proposals where we have to report numbers of people reached, not necessarily the number of people whose behavior was converted. And that I think is still the big problem. It's starting to change, thankfully, now that the behavioral sciences are becoming a bit more mainstream. And I think with that we'll get a lot more impact in the work that we do.

But another problem that we also have is that we're not necessarily evaluating and reporting on a lot of the behavior change interventions that we do have. So there's a lot of work being done all around the world right now, but no one's talking about it. There are no controls. You can't know for sure if your impact is actually there. So there are a lot of great ideas out there; they just need to be a bit more refined here. And I think the system needs to change a little bit to put behavior at the center, as opposed to all these other metrics that are very, very useful but might not be a direct indicator of if people are doing what you need them to do.

CHRIS PARSONS: So do you have any specific suggestions for listeners how they can put behavior up front and center?

PHILIPE BUJOLD: Yeah, definitely. So that usually starts directly at the beginning of the design process. We have our own behavioral centered design process here at Rare. There are many that exist that are based in behavioral sciences. But the way we work at it is that the first step is really to frame everything you're going to do specifically for a single behavior. Then from that we design a theory of change around that specific behavior. So if you're going to have multiple behaviors, you need to have a theory of change for every single behavior. The way that works is that you want the start of the behavior, you want to understand the drivers. So the levers I was talking about earlier: material incentives change this, would the context of the choice change this, would social norms change this behavior. Once you understand that, then you can design activities that will address what you need, and that should result in your behavior. If you're starting at the bottom, where you have an intervention that you know how to do and let's figure out what the behavior is that you can change, you're going at it the wrong way. So I think that's one big suggestion that I have for everyone, start at the behavior and that has to be your focus point and then design everything from that point onwards.

CHRIS PARSONS: Thank you very much. That was really interesting. Very inspiring and gives us a lot to think about. So as we wrap up this episode, do you have any take home messages for our listeners?

PHILIPE BUJOLD: Yeah, so in perfect science fashion, I have two here. The first one, is really going to be "never assume." And never assume that what you've done in the past is the correct way of doing it. So we have a lot of expertise around the behavioral sciences. Use them. The second one I really want to emphasize is "focus on behavior." That should be at the forefront of every intervention design. If we're not putting behavior first, we're probably not going to be able to change the behavior in the way we want to.

HOST: That was Philipe Bujold, a behavioral scientist with Rare's Center for Behavior & the Environment. He was interviewed by Chris Parsons, a communications and policy specialist for the Oceans Division of the National Science Foundation. Head to our show notes for details on our guests and additional links. This interview was edited and produced by Ashley Scarlett of Absolutely Smashing Events and Consulting. It was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Coasts Interagency Group and funded by Adaptation Sciences, or AdSci for short, a group out of NOAA's Climate Program Office. Ideas expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Global Change Research Program or its member agencies. Thanks for listening. We'll be back next month with the third episode in this series. We'll hear a panel discussion on lessons derived from this series on coastal planning — and how these lessons are relevant to the federal government.