Behavior Change and Disaster Preparedness

Behavior change has long been accepted as the ultimate goal toward which disaster preparedness and development interventions should aim. When individuals and communities take on board the practice of disaster preparedness and risk reduction in their own decision-making, then their resilience is strengthened and they have the means to adjust to changing circumstances and continue to reduce vulnerability and strengthen safety. In this sense behavior change is where capacity development and learning meet practice.

Interest in the topic has intensified with the recent work on behavioral economics and the growing public interest in how “nudges” in policy and marketing can influence individual decision-making toward improved public outcomes. Disaster preparedness is certainly an area where these types of approaches can usefully be applied.

Communities are increasingly being recognized as complex systems, with each individual pursuing their own set of decisions but in the midst of thousands or miilions of other individuals doing exactly the same thing. In this context these decisions necessarily begin to impact and interact with one another. In addition at any one time we are all acting in a variety of private and public roles and through institutions that help us to organize individual and group decision-making but which may also add to the overall complexity. In this context it is easy for individual incentives and the public good to diverge. This is particularly the case with disaster risk, where we see many examples around the world of individuals, families, and communities often moving toward situations of greater risk rather than away from risk.

In this context behavior change is an important strategy for aligning individual decision-making with the public good. The following are useful approaches for pursuing behavior change:

  • Social marketing — the application of marketing and related techniques to achieve specific behavioral goals for a social good.
  • Incentives — a tool for shifting the calculus for individual decisions toward improved outcomes by creating or increasing the value to individuals to choose outcomes in line with the social good.
  • Design-thinking —  an approach to encourage creative problem-solving by bringing together key stakeholders and leading them through a process to recognize patterns, use intuition and empathy, and rapidly prototype and test ideas in order to create innovative solutions.