Something in the water: why fear influences our water decisions


I don’t talk about my work at dinner parties. If someone asks, I offer the neutral “I research why people make the water decisions they do”. Because no one really wants to know that I make people – consciously or unconsciously – think about their unavoidable deaths and then test whether death awareness changes their water behaviours. That answer tends to stall the conversation…


I didn’t start out researching the influence of mortality awareness on water decisions. I had a lot of socially acceptable fun exploring different aspects of water decision making, including social networks and capital exchange, gendered water careers (policy and trades) and water efficiency. What underpinned those projects was that I always wanted to better understand how people make water decisions outside or independent of the formal institutional rules, processes and policies. In other words, we know what should be done so what makes people pursue unexpected or ‘irrational’ water choices?


Over the years, I kept bumping up against the dominant rationality assumption – that ‘insufficient information’ explains why people and societies continue to make poor water decisions. Surely if people or systems just knew better, they would do better. But that assumption never sat well with me – we humans are too complex for social function to depend on the rationality assumption (see: climate change denial). With my interdisciplinary research team, we’ve proposed that something else is going on—something deeper, messier, and more fundamental to the human condition. 


Cognitive and affective science researchers have shown that emotions powerfully guide human thought, albeit often unconsciously. Social psychology has added, through Terror Management Theory (TMT), insights about how fear and mortality awareness influences individuals’ everyday behaviours and preferences. Three decades of TMT evidence has shown that efforts to repress mortality awareness results in predictable defensive responses. These defenses motivate humans too, for example, control nature, over-extract resources and be less willing to share. These defenses also allow people to deny their connection to nature and to limit awareness of their own physical vulnerability. There’s no reason to think that our water choices are any less susceptible to these powerful forces. 


For the last five years, I’ve been investigating emotion, death awareness, and water issues. With my research team, we’ve explored how psychological defenses, triggered by one’s mortality awareness, influence water decisions at different scales and locations. These defensive responses are evident in several cases; for example, why people continue to consume bottled water; ill-prepared for urban flooding; build large water infrastructure projects; water their lawns during a drought; use particular language in water speeches; frame and respond to water contamination crises. It is also, we suspect, why even rational, well-educated water experts tend to support established water paradigms or priorities or doggedly define their identities according to their preferred water ‘hero projects’.


This work has taught me that it is absolutely essential that water, climate, and environment researchers get ahead of individuals’ fear defenses. Not doing so presents a real risk that those defenses could become entrenched within individuals’ worldviews and sense-of-self. Those entrenched individual defenses would then make it even harder as a polarized society to resolve the immense water and climate-related challenges at local, regional, national or international scales. As the recent global Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (2018) report and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (2018) climate assessment reminds us, timely action is urgently needed.


As a researcher, environmentalist, citizen, and parent, I know that we cannot lessen peoples’ fear by highlighting doomsday scenarios, nor by minimizing or rationalizing environmental or water problems. Instead, we need something more powerful than fear.



Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018). Global Warming of 1.5 degrees: Summary for Policymakers. Retrieved from: Accessed October 29, 2018.


USGCRP (2018). Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018.