Skip to main content

Sarah Wolfe is a professor in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo.

Today is World Water Day, and experts everywhere are sounding the alarm about water problems.

We'll learn about children in distant lands who die from drinking contaminated water and women who suffer sexual assault because they don't have access to private toilets. We'll see photographs of urban flooding and the damage it has caused to municipal infrastructure and personal property. We'll hear more about climate change, persistent drought and rising food prices. Someone will link water scarcity to the destabilization of societies and to violence and human migration. The list of global water problems is endless, daunting and heartbreaking.

But what if the approach these experts use to reach the public – an approach that relies upon graphic stories about humanity's many water problems – actually doesn't work, because it makes us less likely to listen?

The researchers, community activists, project managers, and policy-makers who grapple with water problems are constantly searching for compelling stories to get their message out. They try to make their concerns heard above the din of competing problems and to shock us out of our complacency. World Water Day is a chance to generate the attention needed to sustain their programs and projects.

These experts implicitly assume that more information is better. Intuitively, one would think that horror stories and hard data are good tools to raise awareness about water problems' urgency. Awareness of this information should change our entrenched beliefs and habits. But it rarely does.

And cognitive scientists and social psychologists know why, at least partially. Anything that triggers mortality awareness powerfully affects our choices. Reminders of death – like a glimpse of a funeral home or a media story about flood risks – might be subtle but still make us feel deeply uncomfortable. So we use predictable responses to repress awareness of those reminders. Sometimes we simply deny our vulnerability or blame other people for it; other times we take on "hero projects" that bolster our self-esteem, earn us social recognition and make us feel less mortal.

But such responses, which are usually subconscious, don't always lead to good decisions or outcomes. In fact, they often generate surprisingly counterproductive results. Researchers have shown that mortality reminders can make people much less open to science that contradicts their worldview or group identity and far less likely to take responsibility for a problem or to share resources with others to solve that problem.

When people are subconsciously reminded of their mortality, they're likely to consume more stuff and to desire greater control over nearby natural landscapes. Mortality reminders actually increase our demands on natural resources, including water.

So here's the fundamental flaw in the World Water Day's more-graphic-horror-stories approach: Water experts rely on problem-focused mental images – images of water risks and danger, of illness and sometimes even of death – to maximize the public's emotional engagement with water issues. They assume doing so will generate greater public awareness and ultimately political support for research and better policies.

But this conventional approach is a mistake. Emphasizing dangers from water scarcity, contamination or flooding only reminds us of our vulnerability. Some people will respond positively to such reminders: they'll undertake water-related hero projects by teaching students about water issues, for example, or by negotiating water-sharing agreements, supporting a charity that provides clean water to underserviced communities, or organizing to stop bottled water companies' extraction of local water supplies.

But most people will respond in predictably negative and unhelpful ways: they will deny, dither, and demand more research be completed; and ultimately they'll displace their responsibility for solving the problem to others.

Given what scientists now know about how our deepest fears affect our behaviours, water experts must anticipate and recognize these instinctive, defensive responses and redefine their messages to avoid prompting them. Then they'll find new ways to secure public interest and engagement, sustain conservation efforts, and produce better water decisions at every level.

Interact with The Globe