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Nudge Theory and Choice Architecture: Can Weather Social Science Be this Simple?

  • By Kim Klockow McClain
  • Oct 26, 2023

Kim Klockow McClain

Over the past decade or two, interest has grown rapidly in bringing social science insights to meteorology. This has fostered a lot of growth in social science research applied to weather, while at the same time raising a number of questions about how that research can be applied. One of the biggest questions that comes up is this: when researchers investigate the human side of the weather resilience problem, how do they set goals for improving our communication system? In other words, what are the metrics of success - if we “effectively communicate” with the various populations of our country, what exactly does that mean? Who decides what effective means? When we do our research, what exactly do we need to be evaluating?

This question isn’t a distant or abstract concern, either, as Congress contemplates legislation that sets specific behavioral objectives - specific goals for improving communication systems.

A common method used across other federal agencies/programs is called nudging. Nudging is a process where you define some very specific thing you want people to be able to do - like comprehend a safety label, or file taxes correctly - and you design a system in such a way that people are more likely to do that thing. Nudging isn’t as strict as, say, a regulation on behavior, it’s intended to be a guide. In our complex world filled with distractions, optimal design of communication platforms can be just as critical for inspiring effective individual choice as having, say, a sensible tax code.

Nudging is an approach a lot of meteorologists leverage without thinking about it. In a drive to inspire people to take protective action, forecasters across the weather enterprise can create products and use language that nudge people toward concern and action. This, however, is a decision that can carry consequences - as meteorologists also know, with the realities of forecast uncertainty, pushing people too far can break their trust as they sense that you are over-emphasizing the risk. Economists also note that taking protective action carries opportunity costs: you lose the time you spent preparing and sheltering that could otherwise have been put to other use, in addition to any cost burden sheltering carried. In addition to this, the decisions people face during extreme weather events are often complicated, and what is optimal for each person can vary widely given their resource constraints and priorities.

A few years ago, the White House had a nudge unit called the Social and Behavioral Science Team. I met with them to discuss the potential for leveraging nudging to address our challenges in weather communication and decision-making. And at the time, they felt that nudging might not be appropriate for us for two reasons: one, our communication system is very complex, and changing just one part of what, say, NWS is doing doesn’t easily translate to population behavior; and two, we can’t easily carve out ideal, easily measurable behavioral outcomes that apply to everyone. The connection between a policy change by NWS and a tangible outcome on the ground is much fuzzier than other federal agencies face in their problem spaces.

This puts us into a space where I prefer to consider an alternate paradigm: informed decision-making (also known as the "Think" movement, rather than "nudge"). In this framework, we put the power of choice in the hands of individuals and remove the obligation we feel to compel people toward specific actions. Given the wide array of populations that we’re trying to serve, informed decision-making takes the pressure off the forecaster to come up with some perfect one-size-fits-all system or single forecast decision. In this framework, we don’t necessarily try to evaluate what exactly people are doing - to know we’ve done the best job we can, and that the system functions well, we need to evaluate the degree to which our messages are received and understood, and that people know what their options for responding are and they feel empowered to make the choice they want to make. Nowhere in there do we make the choice for them, we just ensure they can make optimal choices on their own.

As we continue to cultivate social science research, look out for the kinds of behavioral objectives people bake into their work. You might be surprised at how much nudging you see. And when you do see it, it’s worth asking the question: is this the right way to go?