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Building Resilience Through Behavioral Science

An interview with Destiny Aman on behavioral science and resilience in crisis.

Source: Nicole Kim, used with permission

In times of crisis, we tend to experience stress-related cognitive impairment which affects our ability to make informed decisions. Behavioral science can help us close the gap between awareness and action to drive better decision-making.

Destiny Aman is a human-environment geographer who studies how people perceive, communicate, and respond to the world around them. She uses behavioral science to understand human behavior and promote healthy, resilient adjustments to environmental risks like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Destiny works at HWC, a company based in Washington, DC, dedicated to changing the world for good.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally define behavioral science?

Destiny Aman: I use behavioral science as an umbrella term that covers science and practice across a range of disciplines interested in drivers of human behavior. My discipline, human-environment geography, looks at how people interact with the natural world. And it deals with issues that fall at the intersections of people and environments—things like natural hazards, climate change, and environmental justice.

Applied behavioral science can help us understand how individuals and communities perceive environmental risk, and whether and how they act to address that risk. For example, I look at what makes people more likely to buy flood insurance or to landscape their property to reduce wildfire risk. Then I develop messaging and find ways to effectively engage with people and communities to reduce risk and build resilience. It’s not enough for stakeholders to understand their risk: they also have to make sound decisions, and then take meaningful action. There’s often a big gap between understanding and action. Behavioral science, especially paired with effective, plain-language messaging, can help close that gap.

JA: What are some ways behavioral science can help us understand our decisions in times of crisis?

DA: Routine drives most human behavior. That’s generally useful; otherwise our executive systems would need to make thousands of decisions every day.

A crisis is a punctuation point that forces people to encounter problems differently. The stakes are higher and the window for effective action is narrowed, so if we understand and improve decision-making during a crisis, we can have a big impact.

When we encounter a crisis—like a hurricane or a pandemic or, like now, a pandemic that runs into hurricane season—most of us experience stress-related cognitive impairment. Essentially, our brains get overloaded. So we take mental shortcuts, which means we’re more likely to make decisions based on biases and fallacies, which can get us into trouble.

Here’s an example. Say your community experienced a big flood last year. When you’re under stress, you might fall back on a cognitive bias called the “gambler’s fallacy”: You believe that the recent flood means there’s almost no chance of another one soon. But that would be an error of probability, and it could be an expensive one. In this case, I’d use behavioral science to understand the mental shortcuts we take in a crisis and find ways to help you make decisions that build resilience.

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience amidst a crisis?

DA: Resilience is the ability to bounce back from an adverse event. Sturdy, flexible cognitive frameworks can help us act purposefully and wisely during a crisis and build long-term resilience. Here are some quick tips:

  • When possible, prepare in advance. Build an emergency kit, prepare for flooding, and make an emergency plan.
  • Identify trusted information sources that can help you understand your options and minimize risk.
  • During a crisis, create and maintain a routine to reduce decision fatigue and make good choices automatic.
  • Strengthen your support network. Even before COVID-19, loneliness was a public health crisis. Check these resources for strengthening your connections.
  • Focus on the things you can control rather than those you can’t. None of us can control how long a pandemic lasts, but many of us can control things like:
    • Our own attitudes and behaviors
    • Our daily habits and routines: when we get up and go to bed, what we eat and drink, how much we move and exercise, and how much we get outdoors
    • Our physical environment
    • Our news and social media consumption
    • How we engage with others
    • Where we focus our attention

JA: Any advice for how we might use behavioral science tools to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation during COVID-19?

DA: I’ve found that understanding how our brains make decisions under stress can help build confidence that we and our loved ones can navigate the uncertainty related to COVID-19.

One of the things I noticed right away is that the uncertainty has driven many people to lean heavily on social calibration (watching and following other people) to guide their decision-making. This is common—after all, for most of human existence, we’ve used the group to guide us; people are heavily driven by others’ behavior. But it’s probably more important to make sure we follow guidance from trusted public health sources and to not allow biases to interfere with sound decision-making.

Beyond that, I’ve found it helpful to share with others the simple tips I listed here. Following a routine, focusing on things within our own control, strengthening social ties—those can help every single one of us, but they’re not necessarily intuitive to everyone. So, something that seems basic, like reminding your teenagers to maintain a daily routine or urging a friend in recovery to stay connected with sources of social support, can be surprisingly helpful in reducing risk and dealing with tough situations.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

DA: I’m working with the National Flood Insurance Program to increase the number of households covered by flood insurance. Hurricane season has overlapped with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that creates some interesting challenges. How does the pandemic intersect with hurricane season to increase risk for vulnerable populations? How can we use behavioral science and plain-language communications to focus at least some of the disaster and resilience conversation on flood risk? Flooding is the single most expensive natural hazard and flood insurance is a cornerstone of resilience. The economy is already buckling under the weight of the pandemic, so the stakes are high for households, businesses, and communities. How can behavioral science help us tackle these questions? That’s what I’m focused on right now.

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