Typically, Disaster Risk Management (DRM) agencies assume that vulnerable populations will act on informational advisories, internalizing messaging accordingly to secure their safety. They assume that once appropriate information is received that people will behave in the way advised. This isn’t always the case. The sheer divergence of personal risk management behaviors observed globally in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and public health advisories is an example of how people differ in their responses depending on beliefs and emotions.
Across the Caribbean establishing a baseline of knowledge, attitudes, and practices (KAP) of vulnerable populations in relation to specific threats is commonly acknowledged as an important practice. These baselines serve as pre-intervention points for public safety campaigns, and they also enable Disaster Risk Management agencies to monitor changes in behavior. It is still unclear whether this data is used to inform sensitization and outreach campaigns. However, recently we have seen both the advertisement and application of behavioral science techniques, specifically the deployment of “nudges” and “boosts”.
Nudging: an effective application of behavioral design
Behavioral sciences are premised on the understanding that as humans we are fallible, we make mistakes, our behavior is dynamic, and we have biases which influence how we act. They draw insights about human cognition and decision-making from a range of disciplines including, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics and public health. Behavioral sciences help us to characterize and understand personal decision-making.
‘Nudging’ is one communications tactic that applies this discipline. Behavioral economics nudge policies seek to predictably improve people’s decision-making by changing the ways decision options are presented to them, rather than changing or forbidding actual options themselves or by significantly changing their economic incentives. Simply put, a ‘nudge’ refers to an intervention that gently steers individuals towards a desired action.
A glossary of behavioral biases and tendencies is emerging, terms like: confirmation bias, backfire effect, declinism, in-group bias, self-serving bias and others are becoming common place in the disaster management.
A small (unpublished) study was prepared on the Bahamas after hurricane Dorian (2020) to inform discussions “on sharpening disaster risk and crisis communication by applying behavioral insights” at the Regional Policy Dialogue for Disaster Risk Management (2021). The study found that there was low or limited compliance with public advisories on seeking shelter or evacuation in some vulnerable communities. This was partially attributed to the local culture of “riding out the storms.” The research work sampled and mapped perceptions of stakeholders including tourists, local businesses, the Haitian immigrant community, local community leaders, religious leaders, family-island administrators etc. and found that different groups exhibited diverse and varying judgements in response to the common question of “should we evacuate, or should we stay?”
Supporting NDMAs to apply behavioral design
With intensifying cycles of acute damage and loss from climate-driven disasters comes escalating pressure on National Disaster Management Agencies (NDMAs) to design and deliver effective public safety advisories.
Ideally, NDMAs should…
- select effective culturally and contextually relevant means of communication,
- craft messages that endeavor to elicit trust in NDMA’s as competent, credible messengers,
- stimulate/manifest, optimal personal lifesaving and property risk-reduction behaviors,
- allow for cost-effective/cost-efficient, monitoring, and;
- enable feedback from key vulnerable target populations.
There is thus tremendous benefit in learning more about the biases and preferences of vulnerable groups and the structural challenges which impact how they respond to messages. As DRM practitioners, we should be seeking improve our understanding of behavioral science principles. We should be evaluating their usefulness and where required, applying them to strengthen communications and outreach efforts.
Consistent with our Vision 2025 strategy, the IDB is committed to supporting countries to design and implement effective campaigns to communicate with citizens, especially in emergency situations. We continue to work on knowledge generation and strengthening of public policy in this area through ongoing and planned studies in the Bahamas, Barbados, Ecuador and Peru. Access to IDB’s free behavioral economics course can be found here.
There is compelling evidence to embrace behavioral design as a new and critical skillset in regional disaster management. Are we paying enough attention to this?