Why simply “raising awareness” won’t keep travellers safe

How the application of behavioural science could help.

Like many Chief Execs I have a traffic light-coloured risk matrix, which I review with my Board every quarter, tweaking the probability x impact scores as circumstances change. It’s really comforting…our key risks are monitored, managed and mitigated. We can all sleep at night.

One thing I’ve noticed about risk, especially in relation to travel health and safety, is that neither my scores, nor the traffic light colours, change very much, or very often. The red risks often stay red, and the green, well, green. The scores fluctuate up and down a bit, causing us to pause for thought, but still many of our risks are entrenched. They aren’t going anywhere. And I’ve noticed it in the customer incident patterns of travel companies too. Every year slips, trips and falls are the most common cause of harm to UK citizens travelling abroad on holiday. Every year excessive alcohol consumption will play a role in the deaths or serious injuries of UK travellers.

We have all – including at Safer Tourism – become more imaginative at creating appealing and highly targeted messages to raise awareness about a risk, in the hope that this will (somehow) result in the behaviour we are trying to encourage. By now, you would have thought, there would no longer be any customer incidents in which the harm was caused because people didn’t know about a risk they were taking. Customers receive pre-trip information, they can access “live” safety related information on apps, they may get a briefing at the start of their holiday, and they are advised about safety risks when embarking upon experiences or activities during their trip. Yet still they get into trouble, and you might be forgiven for wondering, “Why did they do that? We gave them all the information they needed?”

Why doesn’t information – telling people about a risk – and then giving them some training or tips to avoid or manage it – work?? Why do all of us continue to do daft or even dangerous things, when we should – and do – know better? It isn’t because we lack the necessary information.

And even when we intend to behave in a certain way (we have the information we need and we know how to avoid a risk), in the moment another motivation takes over and we end up acting differently. It’s called the intention-behaviour gap and anyone who has ever tried to resist that snack and then succumbed will understand the concept.

Our risk assessment matrices are helpful, but we should not kid ourselves that they are shifting risks from red to green. They are a snapshot at a moment in time, and an aggregation of many individual behaviours that combine to create something we need to worry about. And merely giving people information, no matter how appealing the visuals or the soundtrack, in and of itself is not going to change behaviours in any significant way. It’s simply not enough. We have to go deeper into the psychology of individual behaviour – into behavioural science.

Before you exclaim, “Ah yes, behavioural science – that’s nudging, isn’t it?” can I (politely) stop you?

We’ve all heard of “nudge” – changing what’s known as the “choice architecture” to encourage us to make better decisions. If you put the fruit by the checkout and move the chocolate to the back of the store I have to make more of an effort to find it and will make a healthier food choice. If you make me opt out of an auto-enrolment pension scheme instead of opting in, my in-built laziness will help me save for my retirement. Telling me that the other people who stayed in my hotel room only had their towels changed once a week makes me want to fit in, so I’ll go with the weekly change.

These tactics – which do work – make the behaviour choices you want me to make easy, they change my default and they maximise social pressures on me to behave in a certain way.

This is straightforward if you understand what was driving me in the first place to buy the chocolate, not bother with my pension scheme, or request new towels. But some entrenched customer and supplier behaviours in a travel setting need unpicking a bit before we can design a “nudge”. Why would I leave off my seatbelt in a taxi on holiday but not dream of doing so at home? It’s not just about more relaxed local laws. Why do I think it’s ok to go skiing after a boozy lunch, yet I would never mix adventure sports and alcohol back home? Why does that minibus driver continue to answer his mobile phone during the airport transfer, despite all the training he’s had?

The factors influencing our behaviours are highly complex and individualised. They include our own predispositions, our values, our social connections, our mood, the resources available to us and what others around us are doing in that moment. If we are to influence someone’s behaviour, we have to be more sophisticated in our approach. Unpacking this gives us the opportunity to think (and behave) differently in relation to how we understand risk, and how we attempt to mitigate or reduce it. It isn’t easily done in our RAG rated matrix.

Applying a behavioural “diagnosis” in travel scenarios has the potential to offer a new insight into what is driving individual behaviours, and why they are so hard to shift. Using lessons from psychology about how we make decisions, and the sorts of tendencies and shortcuts each of us makes every single day, could help free up our risk management thinking, and help keep the travelling public safe.


Published on 22/03/23

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