Alphabet Soup Convenes Ag Professionals to Analyze Cognitive Biases

During ISAP’s first convening of Alphabet Soup in 2022, over 60 conservation professionals, farmers, government agents, researchers, and industry representatives came together to talk about how behavioral science impacts their work in advancing conservation. Using eight cognitive biases that were identified in the Sand County Foundation report, “Making Conservation Conventional,” attendees participated in an interactive, task-oriented workshop which created opportunities to share experiences, identify cognitive biases they’ve encountered in their work, and develop new approaches to advancing conservation in agriculture.


Advocates of conservation often focus on the what – the outcomes they are trying to achieve – rather than considering the why. ISAP and the Sand County Foundation provided an opportunity for conservation professionals from across the Midwest to step back and think about how our perceptions of conservation specifically, and change more broadly, are formed, influenced by our surroundings, and relevant to our work.


During the workshop, participants used an interactive design approach like that used by Sand County Foundation’s work with GRID Impact. In this accelerated design workshop, we explored the impact of the following eight cognitive biases on adoption of new conservation practices


Confirmation Bias: The tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions or beliefs. People tend to disregard information that contradicts their opinion.


Choice Overload & Choice Conflict: Evaluating many choices can be effortful, and sometimes people will simply move on without making a choice if the comparison task is too hard (new options or many dimensions to comparison).


Hassle Factor: Minor hassles like detailed paperwork, a multi-step process, or unclear next steps can prevent us from taking actions with large payoffs. Conversely, if we expect something to be hassle-free, we might stop and get frustrated when a hassle appears.


Intention-Action Gap: The disconnect between what a person wants to do and what they actually do.


Present Bias: When making a decision we pay much more attention to costs and benefits that happen now and tend to ignore the long-term consequences, especially when they may be uncertain, hard to quantify, or accrue from many small actions over time.


Social Proof: Individuals look to others to see how to behave, especially in ambiguous situations, in crises, and when others are experts. Often, our understanding of what others are doing is flawed or incomplete or their reasons for making a choice are simply not relevant to us.


Status Quo Bias: The tendency to prefer for things to stay relatively the same. People tend not to change an established behavior unless the incentive to do so is compelling enough. This is less reflective of strong beliefs or thoughtful decision-making and more a matter of comfort and routine.


Availability Bias / Salience: The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events that are more “available” in our memory, especially those which are more recent, unusual, or emotionally charged.


Using this framework, participants were grouped based on their roles in agriculture (farmers, researchers, nonprofits, industry, government and extension, and conservation districts) and collectively discussed the key cognitive biases at play in their specific areas of work. The groups developed unique strategies to address those biases and increase adoption of conservation in their regions. The action plans of each group, based on a fast-paced guided-design process, provide interesting ideas to be explored and further developed. Stay tuned for an upcoming ISAP blog which will share some of the strategies and action plans that were developed to address the highest priority biases at play.


If you are interested in learning more about cognitive biases and how they impact our lives, you can explore the Grid Impact website, or read two leading books on the subject: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman and “Talking with Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell.


ISAP’s Alphabet Soup, a network of agronomists, researchers, educators, conservation practitioners, and industry partners in Illinois, will continue to explore current issues, discuss strategies, and build collective capacity to advance nutrient loss reduction and conservation practices in Illinois agriculture. To get involved and hear about upcoming Alphabet Soup gatherings, please visit our Network of Practitioners webpage to join the Alphabet Soup mailing list.

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Bartlett Durand

Bartlett Durand serves as the Director of Water Quality Partnerships with the Sand County Foundation, working to facilitate agreements that allow municipalities and utilities to achieve water quality goals by working with farmers and agriculture groups.