Ann Bostrom

University of Washington
Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs

Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs
Parrington Hall, University of Washington
Seattle, WA
98195-3055 |  Visit Personal Website

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My research focuses on two broad, related questions about risk perceptions, values and decisions: How do people understand and make decisions about environmental, health and technology-related risks? More specifically, what are their mental models of the underlying hazardous processes, and how do their mental models influence their risk decisions?

de Bruin WB, Bostrom A (2013). Assessing What to Address in Science Communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,110 (Supplement 3), 14062-14068.
Abstract: As members of a democratic society, individuals face complex decisions about whether to support climate change mitigation, vaccinations, genetically modified food, nanotechnology, geoengineering, and so on. To inform people’s decisions and public debate, scientific experts at government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and other organizations aim to provide understandable and scientifically accurate communication materials. Such communications aim to improve people’s understanding of the decision-relevant issues, and if needed, promote behavior change. Unfortunately, existing communications sometimes fail when scientific experts lack information about what people need to know to make more informed decisions or what wording people use to describe relevant concepts. We provide an introduction for scientific experts about how to use mental models research with intended audience members to inform their communication efforts. Specifically, we describe how to conduct interviews to characterize people’s decision-relevant beliefs or mental models of the topic under consideration, identify gaps and misconceptions in their knowledge, and reveal their preferred wording. We also describe methods for designing follow-up surveys with larger samples to examine the prevalence of beliefs as well as the relationships of beliefs with behaviors. Finally, we discuss how findings from these interviews and surveys can be used to design communications that effectively address gaps and misconceptions in people’s mental models in wording that they understand. We present applications to different scientific domains, showing that this approach leads to communications that improve recipients’ understanding and ability to make informed decisions.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1212729110
Bostrom A., Böhm G, O'Connor RE (2013), Targeting and Tailoring Climate Change Communications. WIREs Climate Change, 4:447–455.
Abstract: Social marketing studies suggest that targeting segments of the population, by assessing and addressing their values and motives for actions in the design of communications, can improve the effectiveness of health and environmental communications efforts. Guidance for climate change communication now routinely proposes targeting specific audience segments as a fundamental principle, despite ambiguity regarding what specific behaviors to target and a lack of empirical evidence for specific strategies. Audience segmentation strategies proposed to date for climate change communications resemble those used in other social marketing efforts, but can be proprietary or opaque, with little data on the effects of implementing them. Insufficient evidence exists to systematically demonstrate the effectiveness of targeting or tailoring climate change communications per se, other than by reference to related research on health and environmental risk communications. Meta-analyses with systematic literature reviews, however, demonstrate that health risk communications can be more effective at changing attitudes and behaviors if they are tailored to the individual recipients' beliefs about their self-efficacy. The advent of technology-enabled microtargeting is rapidly expanding the opportunities for tailoring and targeting climate change communications and for adding to what we know from using them to make them effective.
DOI: 10.1002/wcc.234
Eiser, JR, Bostrom A, Burton I, Johnston DM, McClure J, Paton D, van der Pligt J, White MP. Risk Interpretation and Action: A Conceptual Framework for Responses to Natural Hazards. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction Review Article. Volume 1, October 2012, Pages 5–16.
Abstract: Understanding how people interpret risks and choose actions based on their interpretations is vital to any strategy for disaster reduction. We review relevant literature with the aim of developing a conceptual framework to guide future research in this area. We stress that risks in the context of natural hazards always involve interactions between natural (physical) and human (behavioural) factors. Decision-making under conditions of uncertainty is inadequately described by traditional models of 'rational choice'. Instead, attention needs to be paid to how people's interpretations of risks are shaped by their own experience, personal feelings and values, cultural beliefs and interpersonal and societal dynamics. Furthermore, access to information and capacity for self-protection are typically distributed unevenly within populations. Hence trust is a critical moderator of the effectiveness of any policy for risk communication and public engagement.
Reynolds,Travis W, Ann Bostrom, Daniel Read and M Granger Morgan. 2010. "Now What Do People Know About Global Climate Change? Survey Studies of Educated Laypeople." Risk Analysis 30 (10): 1520-1538.
Abstract: In 1992, a mental-models-based survey in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, revealed that educated laypeople often conflated global climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion, and appeared relatively unaware of the role of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions in global warming. This study compares those survey results with 2009 data from a sample of similarly well-educated laypeople responding to the same survey instrument. Not surprisingly, following a decade of explosive attention to climate change in politics and in the mainstream media, survey respondents in 2009 showed higher awareness and comprehension of some climate change causes. Most notably, unlike those in 1992, 2009 respondents rarely mentioned ozone depletion as a cause of global warming. They were also far more likely to correctly volunteer energy use as a major cause of climate change; many in 2009 also cited natural processes and historical climatic cycles as key causes. When asked how to address the problem of climate change, while respondents in 1992 were unable to differentiate between general good environmental practices? and actions specific to addressing climate change, respondents in 2009 have begun to appreciate the differences. Despite this, many individuals in 2009 still had incorrect beliefs about climate change, and still did not appear to fully appreciate key facts such as that global warming is primarily due to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the single most important source of this carbon dioxide is the combustion of fossil fuels.
Bostrom, Ann, Ann Hayward Walker, Tyler Scott, Robert Pavia, Thomas M. Leschine, and Kate Starbird (forthcoming 2015). Oil Spill Response Risk Judgments, Decisions, and Mental Models: Findings from Surveying U.S. Stakeholders and Coastal Residents. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal. (online first August 2014)
Abstract: This study applies a mental models survey approach to assess public thinking about oil spills and oil spill response. Based on prior interdisciplinary oil spill response research, the study first applies qualitative interview results and a response risk decision model to the design of a survey instrument. The decision model considers controlled burning, public health and seafood safety. Surveying U.S. coastal residents (36,978 pairs of responses) through Google Insights identifies beliefs and gaps in understanding as well as related values and preferences about oil spills, and oil spill responses. A majority of respondents are concerned about economic impacts of major oil spills, and tend to see ocean ecosystems as fragile. They tend to see information about chemical dispersants as more important than ecological baseline information, and dispersants as toxic, persistent, and less effective than other response options. Although respondents regard laboratory studies as predictive of the effects of oil and of controlled burning, they are less confident that scientists agree on the toxicity and effectiveness of dispersants. The results illustrate opportunities to reframe discussions of oil spill response in terms of tradeoffs between response options, and new possibilities for assessing public opinions and beliefs during events.
DOI: 10.1080/10807039.2014.947865
Bostrom, A., O'Connor, R. E., Böhm, G., Hanss, D., Bodi, O., Ekström, F., Halder, P., Jeschke, S., Mack, B., Qu, M., Rosentrater, L., Sandve, A., & Sælensminde, I. (2012). Causal thinking and support for climate change policies: International survey findings. Global Environmental Change: Human and Policy Dimensions, 22, 210-222, 2012.
Abstract: Few comparative international studies describe the climate change policies people are willing to support and the reasons for their support of different policies. Using survey data from 664 economics and business undergraduates in Austria, Bangladesh, Finland, Germany, Norway, and the United States, we explore how perceived risk characteristics and mental models of climate change influence support for policy alternatives. General green policies such as funding research on renewable technologies and planting trees were the overwhelmingly most popular policy alternatives. Around half the students support carbon reduction policies such as requiring higher car fuel efficiency and increasing taxes on fossil fuels. Least popular were engineering alternatives such as fertilizing the oceans and replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power. Variations among nations are generally small. Support for different policy alternatives corresponds with different causal thinking. Those who hold a pollution model of the causes of climate change, tend to blame environmental harms (e.g., air pollution from toxic chemicals), see general green policy alternatives as effective, and support general green policies. Support of carbon reduction strategies is associated with seeing carbon emissions as the cause and reducing carbon emissions as effective solutions. Support of engineering solutions increases with identifying volcanoes among causes and regarding engineering solutions as effective. Although these international students agree that climate change is a threatening problem, their causal thinking correlates with support for different mitigative policy actions, with the most popular ones not necessarily the most effective.
Wood M, Bostrom A, Bridges T, Linkov I. Cognitive Mapping Tools: Review and Risk Management Needs. Risk Analysis, Volume 32, Issue 8, pages 1333–1348, August 2012.
Abstract: Risk managers are increasingly interested in incorporating stakeholder beliefs and other human factors into the planning process. Effective risk assessment and management requires understanding perceptions and beliefs of involved stakeholders, and how these beliefs give rise to actions that influence risk management decisions. Formal analyses of risk manager and stakeholder cognitions represent an important first step. Techniques for diagramming stakeholder mental models provide one tool for risk managers to better understand stakeholder beliefs and perceptions concerning risk, and to leverage this new understanding in developing risk management strategies. This article reviews three methodologies for assessing and diagramming stakeholder mental models--decision-analysis-based mental modeling, concept mapping, and semantic web analysis--and assesses them with regard to their ability to address risk manager needs.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01767.x
Bostrom, Ann, and Ragnar E. Lofstedt. 2010. "Nanotechnology Risk Communication Past and Prologue." Risk Analysis 30 (11): 1645–1662.
Abstract: Nanotechnologies operate at atomic, molecular, and macromolecular scales, at scales where matter behaves differently than at larger scales and quantum effects can dominate. Nanotechnologies have captured the imagination of science fiction writers as science, engineering, and industry have leapt to the challenge of harnessing them. Applications are proliferating. In contrast, despite recent progress the regulatory landscape is not yet coherent, and public awareness of nanotechnology remains low. This has led risk researchers and critics of current nanotechnology risk communication efforts to call for proactive strategies that do more than address facts, that include and go beyond the public participation stipulated by some government acts. A redoubling of nanotechnology risk communication efforts could enable consumer choice and informed public discourse about regulation and public investments in science and safety.

Substantive Focus:
Environmental Policy PRIMARY
Health Policy
Science and Technology Policy SECONDARY

Theoretical Focus:
Policy Analysis and Evaluation PRIMARY