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What’s your ‘risk attitude’? The role of human behavior in biosecurity

How human behavior impacts biosecurity decisions is a new frontier that’s critical to producers. While much information exists on disease epidemiology and how viruses spread, the best biosecurity protocols in the world mean nothing unless the people involved in an operation are willing to follow them.

Gabriella Bucini, PhD, an ecologist at the University of Vermont, is involved in a project that will help pig producers better understand the human behavior associated with biosecurity and why people make the decisions they do when it comes to protecting farms from disease threats.

As pork producers know, breeches in biosecurity can have devastating consequences.

“That’s why our project [led by Dr. Julia Meter, also at the University of Vermont] links biosecurity with human behavior, and then links to the different risk attitudes that humans have,” she told Pig Health Today. “That risk attitude is what plays the important role in the decisions that we make either today or strategically for the future. Each one of us has a different attitude toward risk, and it is manifested in the decisions — and, ultimately, the behaviors — we have.”

A different approach

Traditionally, people give out surveys to understand how producers might respond to outbreaks or emergency situations associated with disease. But Meter and her team came up with a different approach that involves simulations and video games.

“These ‘digital experimental games’ allow researchers to create models to show the different ways people respond to threats,” Bucini said. The project is unique in its multi-faceted approach. Researchers worked with experts in communication, sociology and economics. Their input was included in the model to gain a more complete understanding of the problem.

The digital game creates different scenarios and variables, with the person playing the game able to make decisions based on the level of risk he or she is willing to withstand.

“You’re now the owner of the farm, you have a budget and you have to decide how much you want to invest in biosecurity,” she explained. “You know that there is disease in the area. Sometimes we give information on where it is, and sometimes you have information about biosecurity. You have to make decisions based on the cost-benefit ratio. If you invest [in biosecurity] your score at the end is lower, but on the other hand, you’re investing in security.”

What they learned

Researchers collected the data and studied the results. They discovered the response to risk is a very personal decision, and people have different strategies on where and when they want to invest. Participants in the research were compensated for playing the game, “because we really wanted them to play sincerely,” Bucini said. Researchers used the general population first and then came to the World Pork Expo last summer to see if the results would be representative of their findings from the larger group. The results were the same.

“In general, when they know there is a high contagion level of a disease in the system, they tend to adopt more biosecurity,” Bucini said. “When the contagion level is low, they take a little bit more risk. They say, ‘Okay, maybe we can make a little bit more money.’ Also, if they know their neighbors have high biosecurity, then they take more risk.”

In other words, if producers felt they were well protected because their neighbors were taking precautions, they would take more risk, but if their neighbors had low biosecurity protocols, they would invest more in their own farm’s security.

Cluster groups emerged

Researchers identified playing strategies and were able to cluster people into groups.

Some people are very risk-adverse, Bucini said. Whether the contagion level was high or low, they quickly invested in biosecurity. On the other end of the spectrum were people willing to take much higher risk, whether the contagion level was high or low.

“Another interesting group is the opportunists,” Bucini said. “They really take in the information they’re given in the game. They take more risk when the contagion is low, but then when the contagion level is high, they really implement biosecurity.”

Other people are risk-neutral, according to Bucini. They don’t seem to respond to contagion levels and so their response is neutral. “We don’t know what they were thinking…in their strategy,” she said. “This is very important, because we want to create messages that nudge people toward more risk-adverse behaviors.”

Communicating the importance

 How do you shift a population toward desired behaviors? Bucini said that’s where communication experts are key. Their “ideal model,” has two parts: The first is reaching people on an emotional level; the second is urging them to take action.

“You can give a lot of instructions, but if they’re not relevant, if they don’t touch a person emotionally, they won’t generate the proper response. People need to know that following the right steps is important to them personally, important for the farm and important for the animals. Then, people need to know what to do when something happens.”

Impress ongoing urgency

If there is an outbreak, or even the risk of an outbreak, Bucini noted it’s important for people to understand biosecurity is a high priority at all times.

“As humans, we tend to relax when there is no present danger. It’s like, ‘Maybe I can cut that corner and go quickly.’ It’s important for everyone to know biosecurity is an on-going issue and their actions are important. They’re part of a larger system and their contribution is key, no matter at what level they’re working,” Bucini said. “They need to understand the potential economic and animal-health consequences if they don’t follow biosecurity protocols.”

A gentle nudge

Making the right choices in risk management isn’t about reward and punishment, Bucini said. Rather, it’s about making the right decisions personally relevant to every member of the team and about nudging them to make the right decision.

“Nudging is a third way [instead of reward or punishment] of moving a population. It comes from letting people be part of the decision because they’re aware of the benefits they receive and society receives. When you nudge, you help people to understand.”

Training tool for management

The game is designed for data collection, but Bucini said the team is working with educational experts to make the game more useable for training applications. Bucini has talked with many producers who say the real issue is training non-farm employees to understand the importance of biosecurity.

“People who have been on a farm for a long time, especially those who have lived through an outbreak, understand the importance of biosecurity. But somebody who is new needs to know the importance even if they haven’t lived through an outbreak. That training is key,” Bucini said.

The industry can have all the rules or standard operating procedures in the world, but it really does come down to human behavior and the decisions farm owners and employees make on a daily basis in keeping their farms protected.

Posted on April 15, 2019

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