Social scientists to probe homeowner behavior in the red zone
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — A pair of University of Colorado Boulder social science researchers will use a $298,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to try and determine what sort of information shapes homeowner behavior in fire-prone areas on Colorado’s Western Slope.
In the past 10 years, the social and economic costs of wildfires have soared across the country, and especially in the West. As wildfire hazards increase, mitigating risks on individual properties is of paramount importance.
Starting with the premise that each household’s actions can affect the choices of neighbors, the researchers want to explore two pathways linking homeowners’ choices as they relate to awareness about risk interdependency and social norms.
One of the questions is whether homeowners are aware that their actions — or non-actions — with regard to mitigating wildfire hazards on their own property affects the level of risk to adjacent properties, and whether that awareness would help spur action.
Secondly, the researchers want to learn if providing comparative information highlighting high levels of mitigation among neighbors may encourage households to increase their mitigation levels.
The use of choice experiments will help overcome some of the the challenge of purely observational studies, when it’s hard to separate causal social effects from other explanations for common patterns of behavior within social groups. At the same time, the observational data puts the experimental results in context and helps to inform the data analysis and policy recommendations.
By learning more about the ways that households influence each other, the researcher hope to help policy makers develop more effective communication strategies that harness the power of social norms to increase private mitigation actions in the face of interdependent risk.
The research tests whether a program giving homeowners social comparison messages (e.g., “You are doing less wildfire mitigation than 75 percent of your neighbors.”) could induce behavior change. The insights gained can provide direct feedback to forest and fire managers currently engaged in community outreach, potentially informing the design of programs aimed at reducing wildfire risk.
Mark Udall, who serves on the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the results of the research could help make neighborhoods safer.
“Wildfires are an unfortunate part of life for many of us living in Colorado. However, there is much homeowners can do to prepare their properties and reduce the risk that they or their neighbors will lose a home or loved one in a fire,” Udall said. “The most effective yard tool you can have if you live in a wildfire-prone area is not always a chainsaw — it’s a rake and a weed-whacker.
“This competitive grant is welcome news for the millions of Coloradans who live in and around our fire-prone areas. I look forward to seeing this study’s conclusions and how we can better encourage homeowners to create defensible space around their homes.”