A&S undergraduates explore the complexities of change on a local and global level

July 3, 2019 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

In a group of daycare centres, a notice appeared on bulletin boards announcing the introduction of a fine for parents arriving late to pick up their children at the end of the day. Each week, a handful of parents were late, forcing daycare staff to remain on duty until the last child went home. The fine was a few dollars and was imposed when a parent was tardy by more than ten minutes.

The result of the financial penalty? The number of late pickups doubled.

“Before the fine was introduced, the incentive for parents to be punctual was that they didn’t want to keep teachers after work,” explains Brad Bass, a professor in the School of the Environment in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “But with the fine, the daycares turned late pick-ups into a commodity — one that parents were willing to purchase.”

The daycares were located in Haifa and were part of a study conducted in 2000 by researchers in Israel. For the latter part of his career, Bass has explored the question at the heart of the study: How effective are different types of incentives in changing behaviour?

Brad Bass with three ROP students in front of a computer
Brad Bass with ROP students Ana Karen Garza, Jared Connoy and Kimberley Bui. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

Bass studies the effectiveness of economic or financial incentives like late-pick-up fines, taxes, subsidies, rebates, and carbon taxes — as well as the effectiveness of policy incentives like laws and regulations.

He also examines other factors at play: social factors like a parent’s desire not to inconvenience a daycare worker; personality factors like an individual’s receptiveness to innovation; or political factors that determine a country’s cooperativeness or intransigence with another.

The questions apply to countless scenarios — from local to global. For example, how do you get farmers to alter their practices so they reduce the amount of phosphorus in the water draining from their fields? How do you get companies or communities to adopt new technologies to reduce pollution or improve sustainability? How do you get countries to cooperate with other countries in order to set greenhouse gas targets?

Research Opportunity Program: Incentivizing behavioural change

Bass has spent the last 20-some years exploring these questions with groups of undergraduate students enrolled in his Incentivizing Behavioural Change project run as part of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Research Opportunity Program (ROP). The program provides second- and third-year students with an opportunity to work closely with a professor on a research project.

“The ROP gives students a graduate student experience,” says Bass. “They get to do original research which is helpful for students who go on to graduate school. And for those that don’t, they gain the knowledge and confidence that they can tackle a large, complex project.”

Jared Connoy is a third-year Victoria College student working on a double major in economics and environmental science with a minor in environmental biology. During the 2018-19 ROP with Bass, Connoy and his fellow students looked at the rate of adoption of green innovations like reduced use of fertilizers and — echoing the daycare study — discovered that economic factors weren’t the only ones at play. His group revealed how a farmer’s tendency to conform played a role; if a farmer’s tendency to conform was high and neighbouring farmers had reduced the amount of fertilizer they used, then the farmer was more likely to follow suit.

Ana Karen Garza is a second-year, St. Michael’s College student pursuing a double major in environmental science and political science with a minor in environmental studies. Her ROP group explored the ways developed and developing countries cooperate with one another in international environmental treaties. They found that countries cooperated if they were culturally similar but were less likely to cooperate if they weren’t.

I worked with two research partners and saw how much more we could accomplish together. We combined our knowledge and ideas and built a model so much more complex and informed than any of us ever could on our own. And any barriers we faced, we overcame thanks to our different strengths.

To conduct their research, students used COBWEB, the software Bass developed over many years to simulate these scenarios. Think of COBWEB as a much more powerful version of SimCity or SimFarm. The software lets users create “agents” within the simulation — for example farmers, businesses or countries — as well as the rules by which those agents interact and the personality traits which influence their behaviour. Along with conformity, agents can be risk averse, conservative, and even neurotic.

What’s more, COBWEB agents can also be individual particles of soil or polar bears or cancer cells which explains how Bass’s students can use the software to study how certain crops reduce soil erosion, the relationship between polar ice and polar bears, the effect of a certain therapy on a tumor, and more.

Research locally — influence policy globally

Students get much more than research results from the ROP. Connoy gained insight into the research process and was impressed by the level of collaboration in the groups. “I worked with two research partners and saw how much more we could accomplish together. We combined our knowledge and ideas and built a model so much more complex and informed than any of us ever could on our own. And any barriers we faced, we overcame thanks to our different strengths.”

I could never do the explorations we’ve done in the ROP if it was just me. There just isn’t enough time. The students bring ideas and are just incredible, and I couldn’t do it without them.

Kimberley Bui is a second-year, New College student doing a double major in chemistry and environmental science. Her group simulated a wetland ecosystem and examined how vegetation, sub-surface soil, aeration and other factors affected the removal of pollutants from wastewater. “I wanted insight into research,” she says. “And through the ROP, I discovered that I enjoy research very much and hope to be part of more projects in the future.”

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the ROP. “I could never do the explorations we’ve done in the ROP if it was just me,” says Bass. “There just isn’t enough time. The students bring ideas and are just incredible, and I couldn’t do it without them.”

As Canadians and the world search for the most effective way to combat climate change, the insights revealed by Bass and his students into incentivizing change are more important than ever.

“In the past, my work has influenced policy,” says Bass. “And in the future, I hope to influence conversations about the costs of inaction on a range of issues and the range of factors influencing behavioural changes. What I hope we can show with our new work is how a mix of these factors do influence changes in behaviour.”