Water Psychology: Please Lie Down on My Couch
Water policy wonks pride themselves on even-handed analysis of the costs and benefits of water policy, as driven by the rational and logical decisions of involved actors. But the psychology of water policy and politics is much more fun. And psychology is heavily involved in real water policy decisions, and should be considered as an important part of the picture.
The recent toxic drinking water event in Toledo, Ohio drives home this point. Of course one of the interesting aspects is the cooperation problem of controlling non-point source pollution from urban and ag sources, and the associated phosphorous that contributes to the algae blooms. Psychology and cooperation are deeply intertwined; a lot of my work engages those issues.
But Toledo brings up the even more fun water psychology point--when will people trust the drinking water again? Most places in the United States are fortunate enough to have relatively safe drinking water, and over time these communities have developed an implicit level of trust in the water that comes from their taps, and the local water districts that provide it. In the jargon of "dual processing" models of decision-making, this trust lives in the domain of automatic processing. It is an "online heuristic" that people rarely question when choosing to turn on the tap. But when you have a toxicity event, all of a sudden decision-making moves into the "systematic processing" domain of cognition, and that trust begins to be questioned. As most trust research suggests, trust is easy to break and difficult to build. Hence we can expect people in Toledo, Ohio to have much higher levels of distrust in their water, and the water supply agencies. As distrust goes up, people think the water is more risky, and are more likely to switch to bottled water. Photographing the mayor drinking the water is an attempt to re-establish that trust--but I bet even the mayor was a bit squeamish. Take a moment to think about your own reaction to the situation. I bet you can really feel your psychological reaction to the potential risk.
The role of trust in water supply comes up in some other important contexts. While water recycling has advanced far enough to make drinkable water from wastewater, people cannot get over the toilet-to-tap psychology. Hence various water managers and political leaders make public events out of drinking recycled water (and probably actively suppress their own gut reaction!). Most people in the world have quite bad water infrastructure, and never learn to trust their drinking water or suppliers. They drink bottled water if they can afford it. When people from these cultures move to the United States or other more developed countries, they bring the distrust with them and will still drink bottled water even when the local water infrastructure is perfectly fine. They will teach their kids to drink the bottled water too--it takes some time for cultural evolution to break down this distrust. Here is an example of research that shows Latino populations are more likely to drink bottled water; the issue is complex but psychology plays a major role.
But trust is not the only manifestation of water psychology. Take the current California drought. Yes, it really is bad. But as I've pointed out elsewhere, there have been bad droughts before. Droughts activate what Kahneman and Tversky call the "availability heuristic", where dramatic events increase our estimation of the actual probability of the events. For example, news about a grizzly bear attack causes most people to over estimate the risk--you're much more likely to die in a car accident on the way to work than be attacked by grizzly in Glacier National Park.
Hence, drought is a source of "panic politics", with knee-jerk policy recommendations often overwhelming more reasoned analysis. For example, one of the first recommendations is "build more surface storage" but in reality even building out all of the potential surface storage sites in CA will only be a band-aid solution. A much more integrated portfolio of drought management strategies is required, including both demand and supply side tools. Groundwater management is one obvious issue that deserves attention.
An oft-heard phrase among water policy stakeholders is "don't let a good crisis go to waste", and perhaps there is some wisdom in this saying (although its overuse annoys me). The "water planner" in me wants to respond "but let's do rational planning BEFORE the drought". But that goes directly against human psychology, so maybe we should figure out ways to maximize the policy change that is possible from agenda-setting events like a drought. On the flip side, the availability heuristic also explains why rain literally dampens the water policy agenda--the risk doesn't seem as obvious. But in all of these cases, the underlying probabilities are driven by climatic variables, while the risk perception is driven by psychology.
Framing is another important psychological phenomenon, and the phrase "peripheral canal" is a perfect example. The peripheral canal was supposed to be a second stage of the CA state water project, but the ballot initiative was defeated in 1982. This was really the first major defeat to large-scale water development in CA, and the peripheral canal subsequently became a dirty word in CA water politics. Invoking the peripheral canal is a good way to create opposition to a project. Of course the issue never really went away; the debate about whether to move water around the CA Delta has been going on for decades. It continues today, but now the proposed project goes under different names--a "dual conveyance facility" or the "twin tunnels". The dual conveyance language is usually used by project proponents--it is more technocratic, seems rational(right?), and doesn't risk the negative frame of the peripheral canal. The "twin tunnels" language is used by opponents, and does a better job of provoking more visceral psychological reactions. The language matters because it connects to psychology in different ways. There are other entertaining CA water policy sayings that are also connected to psychology; two of my favorites are "getting better together" and "co-equal goals". Who couldn't agree with those ideas, right?
So next time you drink your tap water, or bottled water, or filtered glacial runoff (watch out for giardia!) take a moment to think about the psychology of water. It is an important and interesting part of the story.