Wildfires — the perfect behavioral problem

Kristen Berman
Nov 13, 2019 · 5 min read

In San Francisco, it is now commonplace to see people strap on a face mask before walking out the door. They are protecting themselves from inhaling the smoke-filled air, contaminated with the toxic particles from nearby fires. Walgreens frequently sells out of these masks on mornings when the air is particularly bad.

If you were an alien that visited the Bay Area on one of these days, you might easily conclude that the poor air quality is a massive health risk to humans. You’d see every 3rd person with a mask and would assume that air quality is not only a massive risk, but it must be one of the top causes of death. Based on the immediate and visible human reaction to poor air quality, it would have to be.

As a rational outsider, you’d reason that diabetes could not be a top cause of human death, or else people wouldn’t consume so much sugar on a daily basis. Heart disease also couldn’t be a top cause of death, given how little humans exercise on a daily basis. And you’d most definitely have to conclude that air quality deaths are greater than auto accident deaths, given how many people get behind the wheel every day.

Based on the reaction of Bay Area residents to smoke-filled air, compared to all other risks they face, an alien may logically conclude air quality is a threat we should prioritize above all others.

But it’s not. Not even close. The most cited published paper claims US deaths from wildfire pollution range between 1500–2500 per year in the United States (and this is inflated as it includes agriculture-related air quality deaths). That’s still a lot of deaths! But, compare that to the 600k+ people that die from heart disease or the 200k+ that die from diabetes. It’s also true that long-term exposure to polluted air can have drastic permanent health effects (think living in India’s polluted skies or inhaling smoke from indoor wood cooking stoves in Uganda every day). But short term exposure from wildfires pales in comparison to some of our top causes of death.

So why do humans react so strongly to a risk that doesn’t even compare to other risks they take on a daily basis? Why do humans strap on masks and yet eat sugar or get behind the wheel? These behaviors — especially when done frequently — are way more risky than inhaling particles over the course of a few days or a few weeks.

I’d like to argue that decreases in air quality are the perfect recipe for behavior change. Most other behavior problems can learn from how low air quality gets humans to take preventative care measures and quickly strap on a mask for protection, despite not being a top threat to their long term health.

It’s a visible problem.

I see smoke in the air. I smell smoke in the air. Nobody has to convince me that the problem exists. Imagine if all the sugar in our food was dyed green. If this were the case, there would be no way we could fool ourselves (or others) that the muffins we eat don’t contain over 20 grams of sugar. Similarly, the introduction of pink Himalayan salt to our everyday lives likely helped people use less salt. White salt blends in with your food, so you can’t tell if you added too much salt until you take your first bite. With pink salt, it is very clear if you overdo it before you take that first bite.

The air looks visibly different than normal. This cue tells us something is wrong and is much harder to deny.

The solution is visible.

The solution to the air quality problem is to wear a mask. People see others wearing masks, and it’s even normal to do this on days of high smoke. There is no debate over what the optimal response should be if you’re concerned about air quality. Put on a mask.

What is the optimal way to increase your financial health? Most advisors would recommend paying down high-interest debt or saving. Sadly, paying down debt or saving is not visible to others. You may pay off your full credit card balance (an admirable feat!) and nobody would know that you took an action to improve your financial health. You may deposit $1,000 into your savings account, but your best friends and family would be none the wiser.

When the ‘good’ behavior is invisible, it’s hard for people to learn the appropriate solution, much less feel pressure to take action. Wearing a mask makes it clear how to address the problem while simultaneously nudging others to follow along.

There is immediate relief

A mask does help with acute symptoms. Once you put on a mask, you don’t inhale particles from the smoke anymore. Your next breath is better.

Imagine if you exercised and lost a little bit of weight, but you lost it immediately. Everyone would be at the gym! Instead, most behaviors that impact our health don’t have immediate nor guaranteed outcomes. If anything, the outcomes for our health behaviors are the opposite — they are uncertain and far in the future. If you take your hypertension medication daily, you’ll have a lower risk of dying from a stroke. But nothing actually happens after I take the pill. There is no relief and no feedback. It’s also very unclear what would happen if I started missing doses because I would feel no different next week or next month. And, furthermore, it’s quite possible I’d be a part of the lucky few that never experiences any negative outcomes from poor adherence. Without immediate feedback, there is little motivation for me to continue doing something preventative for my health.

Masks provide immediate relief. For a behavior change to be adopted, it should follow this script — right after a person takes an action, they get feedback that the action is helpful.

Un-masking the problem

While poor air quality is not pleasant for anyone, it does offer a fairly uplifting observation of behavior change. We can do it! If a problem and its solution are designed in line with our human biases, we can take preventative action needed and change our behavior for good. Now, the challenge is to turn more problems and solutions into a wildfire one.

Kristen Berman

Written by

Thinking about Irrationality. Behavioral Scientist. Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab.

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