Everybody knows they should wear a seatbelt. Some people don’t, but they probably feel like they’re going against other peoples’ expectations in those moments, on top of their awareness of disobeying the law.
That wasn’t always the case. In the 1960s and 70s, resistance to the life-saving devices was the norm. Reasons ranged from discomfort and the overall hassle of it to deep belief in personal choice. It took time, but the eventual passage of seat belt laws was both a cause and evidence of a major reversal of public sentiment. There came to be widespread agreement that car companies should be obligated to provide effective seatbelt technology, and a feeling that not using them is taking an unnecessary risk.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but in construction, building codes are like seatbelts. Both aim to make it likely that occupants will walk away with no more than minor injuries, but the car (or the building) might be unusable for weeks, expensive to fix, or a total loss. For cars, that trade-off is well understood and considered reasonable, but what about for the buildings on which our livelihoods and quality of life depend? Unlike with seatbelts, most people do not understand the level of performance they can expect from a code-compliant building. Also, from the COVID pandemic, we’ve got a whole new perspective on which buildings are “essential.”
Resilience advocates can learn from the trajectory and factors that gradually flipped peoples’ attitudes about seat belts. Evidence of cost-effectiveness and even laws were not enough to ensure their use. Findings from decades of human behavior research drive home the point: cognitive understanding of risk facts is not the main reason people take precautionary action. Emotions, convention, habit, and reliance on what peers are doing tend to dominate behavior when uncertainty about odds and outcomes are high, especially when there are small chances of big losses or lengthy time horizons involved. Human beings are simply hard wired towards overconfidence, short-sightedness, and following the pack, even when their instincts and pack routines have little to no grounding in real experience or evidence.
Insights from successful public health campaigns of the past can help resilient design advocates and professionals better sell why it’s worth it.
Changing minds and behavior often comes down to a deceptively simple formula: increase perception of the benefits of taking action and decrease perception of its costs. But we must keep in mind that benefits and costs can also be psychological and social, often implicit and subconscious. Aligning our marketing strategies and public education efforts with this reality gives us a powerful edge in our pitch. Although it’s not a perfect word, we should strive to make investing in resilience fashionable as well as feasible. In forthcoming blog posts, I’ll share some of my best advice that can help you do just that with clients, colleagues, and constituents.