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A New Research Collaboration: The Irrationality of Marine Conservation

October 26, 2014

BehavFish Workshop, ICES, Copenhagen, Oct. 21-23

This past week I had the distinct pleasure to participate in a new, collaborative research endeavor. The event was the “BehavFish Workshop” hosted at ICES in Copenhagen. (Tangentially, ICES has perhaps the best name in marine science – the international Council for the Exploration of the Sea…eat your heart out, Steve Zissou).

BehavFish had as its purpose the identification of ways to harness human irrationality for the purposes of marine conservation. Now while that might sound worryingly manipulative, it was the the pro-social irrational impulses that we were interested in, and foremost among among our findings was the recognition that trust is a fundamental element of successful conservation. So maybe a better way of saying it is that the BehavFish workshop was about waking up to reality. Conservation is ultimately about behavior change, and so we need to stop thinking that the world operates according to a basic economic calculus (as so many of our policies assume).

The three-day workshop was divided into discussion sessions on essentially-commonsense truths about human nature that social science has relatively recently “discovered”. I’ll exercise some editorial license here and summarize them as the following:

1. We think about more than just ourselves when we make decisions. (i.e. altruism and social capital influence our behavior)

2. We all live with competing desires and struggle to prioritize them in the face of life’s uncertainties. (i.e. risk, uncertainty, and heuristics influence our behavior)

3. In a perfect world, we would all want to be “good” people. (i.e. we evolved in collaborative groups and our emergent self-identity influences our behavior)

4. We are hard-wired not to trust “strangers”. (i.e. communication, negotiation, framing, and reframing of the issues are essential processes of modern social institutions, which in turn influence behavior).

So what exactly does this mean when the pie-in-the-sky idea hits the real world pavement of MS powerpoint? Well, for one example, I provide here my own PowerPoint that was meant to kick-start the session on fisheries compliance.

(FYI, you’ll need to download it if you want the slide notes)

Of course, even more important than the numerous discussions were the policy ideas that were generated and – indeed – that continue to take shape as our group now works on the workshop report and a plan for moving forward. I’ll be sure to share more details soon as they emerge.

Finally, I want to thank Sarah Kraak, the driving force behind the workshop; Ciaran Kelly for his gifted facilitation; ICES and the Fisheries Society of the British Isles (FSBI) for their generous support and funding; and the many other clever and inspiringly open-minded behavioral economists and fisheries scientists that made the workshop possible: Chris Anderson, Dorothy DankelMatteo GalizziDiogo Gonçalves, Katell HamonPaul Hart, J.J. MaguireJeroen NieboerAndy Reeson, David ReidAndries RichterAlessandro Tavoni, and Ingrid van Putten.

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