Every person has a different attitude toward risk, which manifests in the decisions — and, ultimately, the behaviors — they make, says Gabriella Bucini, PhD, an ecologist at the University of Vermont. She is involved in a project 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.
The project (led by Dr. Julia Meter, also at the University of Vermont) linked biosecurity with human behavior, and then linked to the different risk attitudes that humans have, she said in a presentation at the 2019 American Association of Swine Veterinarians annual meeting. “That risk attitude is what plays the important role in the decisions that we make either today or strategically for the future.”
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. And as pork producers know, breeches in biosecurity can have devastating consequences.
Learning Through Experimental Games
Meter and her team came up with a research 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 and how they make decisions in these situations,” Bucini said. The project stands out because of its multi-faceted approach. Researchers worked with experts in communication, sociology and economics, whose input to the model provided a more complete understanding of the problem.
The digital game presents different scenarios and variables, forcing players to make decisions based on the level of risk they consider acceptable.
“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.”
Researchers discovered the response to risk is a very personal decision, and people have different strategies on where and when they want to invest. They also have different levels of risk that they’re willing to take for the protection of their farms.
Researchers used the general population first and then talked to attendees at the 2018 World Pork Expo to see if the results would be representative of their findings from the larger group. They discovered producers’ strategies were very similar to those of the general public.
“In general, less biosecurity is implemented when the contagion level is low, and when the contagion level of a disease increases, producers 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 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.
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,” she said.
“People who have been on a farm for a long time, especially those who have lived through an outbreak, understand the importance of biosecurity,” she added. “But somebody who is new needs to know the importance even if they haven’t lived through an outbreak. That training is key.”
People need to know that following the right steps is important to them personally, important for the farm and important for the animals. Then, they need to know what to do when something happens. The industry can have all the rules or standard operating procedures in the world, but comes down to human behavior and the decisions farm owners and employees make every day in keeping their farms protected.