Water vs potholes – the problem of salience bias

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Water vs potholes – the problem of salience bias

potholesMy new concept for the week is salience.  Before Leon from Occam’s Donkey introduced me to it, I have to admit I didn’t even know it existed.  However, now that I am aware of it, I think it’s quite an important factor in much of the work we do.

Maybe I should start with a definition –Salience is the state or condition of being prominent. The Oxford English Dictionary defines salience as “most noticeable or important.”   In short, salience theory studies what people deem to be more important to them out of a series of options.  Politicians are especially interested in this, as it seems a very useful manipulation tool …

“The importance of a political issue, or issue dimension. The theory of spatial competition allows for the possibility that there are several relevant dimensions. Since these dimensions may not be of equal importance, the concept of salience is used to reflect the relative weights voters place on each dimension. William Riker noted that politicians can use rhetoric to manipulate the relative salience of different issues to achieve particular outcomes. For instance, he argued that Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election partly by emphasizing the slavery issue.” (fromanswers.com)

So what is the significance of this on the work we do?  On our water project, we studied the behavioral drivers of stakeholder engagement and volunteerism.  What astounded us was how few people seemed to grasp the urgency of the water issues they faced, and seemed to be much more inclined to spend time and effort on other seemingly less critical issues like filling up potholes and beautifying the traffic circles and pavements.  A community living next the the “dirtiest dam in the world” seem to care less about getting involved in finding solutions for this issue, but that same community has one of the largest and most active neighbourhood crime watch volunteer groups I’ve come across.

Salience theory seem to explain this. The potholes and ugly traffic circles seem to have an immediacy that the water issues lack.  They still have water coming out of their taps (albeit very dirty), but they drive through potholes every day.  Crime also has an immediacy that environmental issues don’t have, it grabs people on an emotional level.  They can also identify with it, if the house down the street from me can be broken into, then so can mine.  Water issues at the moment, lack immediacy.  It’s similar to HIV and even smoking.  I think most people would never smoke if they knew they’d be dead an hour after their last pull on the cigarette.  But because the consequences of smoking (and unprotected sex for that matter) are far in the future and may or may not happen, people seem to disregard the risks.

Another issue seems to be the lack of immediate results when tackling environmental and water related issues.  If we decide to fill up potholes ourselves or landscape a pavement or two, we can see the results immediately.  Environmental and water issues take much longer, sometimes it may be years, before any visible results are seen.

So, the question becomes: how do we increase the saliency of water and environmental issues, so that the relative importance the general population assigns to them starts to exceed less important issues like beautifying traffic circles?  If we don’t, it’ll take a crisis (as one water activist put it: “sometimes we pray for a tragedy”) to mobilise people, and if that crisis is a national water shortage, it’ll be too late.

In my next entry, I’ll look at the link between salience and identity.

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