Hi everyone! I’m Christine, BC BIG’s new Senior Behavioural Scientist.
Hi! My name is Christine Kormos, and I’m thrilled to have recently joined the BC Behavioural Insights Group (BC BIG) as a Senior Behavioural Scientist. In putting together this post introducing myself, I’ve tried to highlight some signposts that, looking back, I can see have shaped my path.
Early interest in biology
It all started with salamanders. Or, rather, a lack of salamanders… I was interning for the summer as an Assistant Biologist for the Canadian Forest Service in northern Ontario. As a welcome change from my days spent in the library at Queen’s University, that summer was adventure-filled: our team travelled down logging roads and on ATVs to access remote forested areas that had been logged at varying numbers of years ago (e.g., 5-, 10-year re-growth…), or — more rarely — never logged at all. Our task, as part of a project called “Bioindicators of sustainable forest management,” was to identify which species return, and when, after a forest has been logged. We monitored insect traps and salamander boards, set at regular intervals along tracts. Salamanders, like canaries in a coal mine, are important environmental indicators of the quality of an ecology due to the permeability of their skin and eggs. As I turned over one salamander board after another that summer, I was met with the same disheartening sight: no salamanders. I didn’t see a single one that summer. And what I came away with was a sense of clarity that I wanted to focus my efforts further ‘upstream’, on the behaviours that lead to environmental effects. I wanted to focus on the most enigmatic creatures of the animal kingdom: people.
Yes! There’s a field of study that combines biology and psychology!
I was delighted, then, to come across a sentence in a psychology textbook later that year about the existence of the field of environmental psychology. Contrary to popular belief, this does not involve counselling rocks and trees; rather, environmental psychology refers to the interface between humans and their built and natural environments. Armed with my undergrad in biology and psychology, I headed west to the University of Victoria to do my Masters in applied social and environmental psychology with Dr. Robert Gifford. Aside from assisting with an early project for the Canadian Space Agency examining the habitability of the International Space Station (that was a cool project — we used virtual reality goggles), I’ve mostly focused on human behaviour as it relates to the natural environment and sustainability. For example, one of my first projects involved helping to organize a multi-national study in which we found evidence of the pervasiveness of the spatial optimism bias (i.e., the tendency to think that things are better “here” than “there”) in peoples’ assessments of environmental conditions. I was hooked; I couldn’t help but wonder how such biases impact behaviour, possibly making people less likely — en masse — to behave sustainably.
From there, the pull towards high-impact behaviours drew me to focus on transportation, a historically difficult behaviour to change, but which accounts for almost one quarter of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Passenger transport (cars, trucks, and motorcycles) currently comprises a substantial — albeit declining — proportion of greenhouse gas emissions from the Canadian transportation sector. It is assumed that, while some single-occupant vehicle trips are necessary, others are merely made out of habit, despite the fact that alternative (perhaps even better) options exist. As part of my Master’s thesis, I ran a month-long field experiment focused on shifting those “less-necessary” trips. I evaluated the impact of dynamic social norm information (for example, informing participants in the study that, “X% of commuters at the University of Victoria have switched to sustainable modes of transit in the past ten years”) on a sample of university faculty, staff, and students’ willingness to reduce single-occupant vehicle use. Those who received messages that highlighted more prevalent social norms about changes to others’ sustainable transportation subsequently increased their own sustainable transportation behaviour for commuting purposes (self-reported via a daily travel diary), compared to baseline, providing evidence for the causal impact of such messages.
But wait, what exactly are we measuring here…?
And yet, throughout this time, I couldn’t shake my concerns about whether self-report measures accurately reflect the constructs they’re intended (and assumed) to measure. Owing to their low cost, relative ease of use, and flexibility, self-reports (i.e., obtained through surveys, questionnaires, or interviews) are often used as measures of behaviour — under the assumption that they accurately reflect actual behaviour. As subjective estimates of participant’s own behaviour, however, inaccuracies may creep in from a variety of sources, threatening the construct validity of self-reports (e.g., the degree to which self-reported water consumption accurately assesses actual water consumption). For example, self-reports may be prone to exaggeration, perhaps due to social desirability bias (the tendency for individuals to respond in a manner that will be viewed favourably by others) or due to individuals’ intentions to behave in a certain way in the future. Self-report measures are also subjective by nature — where descriptors, such as ‘Often,’ may mean different things to different participants — and, of course, they are susceptible to limitations in memory (How many minutes long was your shower yesterday…?).
Given my concerns about self-report measures, I ran a meta-analysis (a statistical analysis that combines the results of multiple scientific studies on the same topic) to quantify the overall association between self-reported and objective measures of pro-environmental behaviour in the literature. Findings revealed that a surprisingly large amount of variance (79%) remains unexplained by each of these variables! My main concern was that this might possibly lead researchers to draw misleading conclusions about the usefulness of theories that employ self-reports to predict objective behaviour via intervention campaigns. Aside from cautioning other researchers about interpreting results based on self-reports, these findings strengthened my passion for conducting work that tries to dig deeper than self-reported behaviour, ideally focusing on actual behaviour, if possible.
Psychology meets policy
Given this, when I evaluated the impact of potential economic policies and the addition of extra public charging stations on BC citizens’ preferences for zero-emissions vehicles (e.g., Tesla, Leaf, and Volt), as part of my doctoral dissertation, I used a technique known as a stated choice experiment. Rather than simply asking people outright about their vehicle preferences, respondents in choice experiments select their most preferred of several vehicle options across a series of choice sets, each with systematically varied attributes (e.g., purchase price, estimated annual fuel costs, estimated annual emissions, range on battery only, and point-of-sale incentive amount). Then, through the magic of statistics, we can infer underlying preferences for vehicle types, overall, and for particular vehicle attributes. One motivation for this work, which was partly sponsored by BC’s Ministry of Energy, Mines, & Petroleum Resources, was that the Province was at a critical juncture in that the Clean Energy Vehicles Program for British Columbia had been paused, while they tried to figure out how best to promote uptake in the most cost-effective way. I helped to identify the ideal incentive amount to offer to encourage those buyers who would not necessarily otherwise purchase a zero-emissions vehicle. I continued this transportation policy-relevant work as a Postdoctoral Researcher at Simon Fraser University, with Dr. Jonn Axsen, where we demonstrated, for instance, that overall vehicle preferences are largely affected by purchase incentives but only minimally affected by improvements in public charging access.
Despite the advantages of stated choice experiments, however, they are still prone to hypothetical bias in that responses may not map well onto real-world vehicle purchasing behaviour — and they’re not technically experiments per se. In my work as a behavioural economics consultant for Consumer Reports, I worked to address these issues by running a stated choice experiment within a randomized controlled trial, applying behavioural science to investigate how varying the presentation of fuel economy (e.g., miles per gallon vs. annual fuel cost vs. five-year fuel cost) causally impacts consumer willingness-to-pay for fuel efficiency. We found that consumer valuation of fuel economy was impacted by the metric used, with the full fuel economy label causing significantly higher willingness-to-pay for fuel economy compared to the annual fuel cost or five-year fuel cost labels. This research was submitted by Consumer Reports to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s open-docket on the announced roll-back of planned increases to fuel economy standards. I recently ran a subsequent study with the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy, using a similar method, in which we evaluated the causal impact of varying home energy score (HES) metrics on home buyers’ willingness-to-pay for energy efficiency, compared to a control condition in which no efficiency information was presented, across the following conditions:
- HES alone
- HES on a continuum
- Estimated annual home energy costs
- Estimated annual home energy costs + HES on a continuum
- Energy saver!
- Control condition
Living my best life as a public servant
After years of striving to put the current behavioural policy challenges facing governments at the center of my research efforts, I realized a few years ago that my ideal job would be to work directly for the public service — at the nexus of social science and behavioural policy. This past year, I was fortunate to be a Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellow, working as a behavioural scientist for the BC Ministry of Agriculture, where I designed and implemented a randomized controlled trial to promote participation in a government program, in close collaboration with BC BIG. This was my first time working outside of the realm of sustainability and, during that time, I was also fortunate to be involved as an ‘Experimentation Expert’ with the Experimentation Works 2 initiative with the federal Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.
So, that’s me in a nutshell. It certainly hasn’t been a straight line; it’s been a (somewhat meandering) narrowing down of what it is that inspires me to go to work every morning — which, these days, means working at my kitchen table, like many of you also working from home. I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of BC BIG, working alongside such a great team, as we serve client ministries by applying behavioural science to improve government services. Being able to do work that I find fascinating — bridging research with application — while helping to improve outcomes for the public is truly a dream come true! I hope to cross paths with many of you, either virtually or eventually in person (just like the good old days).
 Government of Canada. (2018). Discussion paper on the mid-term evaluation of the Passenger Automobile and Light Truck Greenhouse Gas Emission Regulations. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/canadian-en....