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When we think about changing individual or societal behaviors related to the environment, we typically look to the fields of education and marketing for answers. A wealth of research in risk analysis, and behavioral psychology and economics, however, shows that neither education nor outright persuasion will necessarily lead to more thoughtful or more informed decisions (or more environmentally sustainable behaviors). The goal of this presentation is to better understand how individuals make decisions, and how these processes may lead to a failure to recognize environmental and human health risks associated with issues like climate change, or a failure to act even when these risks are identified. In particular, we will explore how the human mind uses two systems when making decisions: the experiential and analytic systems. The experiential system is automatic and unconscious, often thought of as intuition, and the first system to engage, therefore motivating individuals to act (seek out additional information, change their behavior, etc.) or avoid (fail to seek out additional information, ignore the problem, etc.). The experiential system drives individual perceptions of risk, or the level of individual concern someone may hold about an activity, event, or technology. The analytic system requires conscious effort, and it is the second system to engage, allowing individuals to deliberately process information and logically consider any decision relevant information. This system is necessary for risk assessment to occur, or for individuals to objectively think about risk as the probability of an event occurring and the consequences if it occurs. These two modes of processing should work in unison, but the tendency for the experiential system to dominate explains many divergent public reactions to objectively similar risks. A brief example of such divergent reactions will be discussed. Finally, three models of decision making will be discussed. These three models reflect both systems of processing and the need for the two systems two work in unison. Normative models explain how individuals should make decisions under ideal conditions (requiring operation of the analytic system), 2) descriptive models explain how individuals actually make decisions under less-than-ideal conditions (relying on operation of the experiential system), and 3) prescriptive models aim to correct the common errors in judgment displayed by descriptive models in an effort to help decision makers behave more normatively (essentially creating that balance between the two systems). Understanding the realities of how individuals process information and make decision, particularly in complex contexts involving risk and uncertainty, sheds some light into why many efforts aimed at engaging the public and changing behavior may not have led to the desired outcomes. It also identifies how prescriptive models of decision making can be used as a communication tool to encourage more informed environmental decisions.

Speaker Bio

Dr. Wilson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at The Ohio State University. She is a behavioral decision scientist by training, who conducts research that is both theoretical and applied in nature. She is interested in the underlying factors that motivate individuals and explain their choice behavior in common environmental policy and management contexts. She is also interested in the application of decision aiding techniques and methodologies that improve both risk communication and decision making in these same contexts. She generally studies the process of risk-based communication and decision making, which allows her to work on problems with implications for a variety of fields, including agriculture, the environment, and public health.

Funding provided by the Climate Program Office, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute.
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