How do you get people to take action against an invisible problem? Against a compound that is technically an organic poison created in nature, not the byproduct of an evil businessman or corporation?

And how do you get people to take action against a problem with a cute name? Radon gas! Sounds like a feature in the new iPhone: “This screen is powered by Radon!”

But colourless, odourless radon gas can be a killer. The gas is formed when uranium in the soil degrades and is released into the air. Some of that gas can seep into houses, especially older ones, where it can be deadly. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, a disease most of us associate with the self-inflicted consequence of cigarette smoking. About 1 in 10 lung cancer deaths are caused by breathing radon gas indoors, a rate that kills almost 2,000 Canadians every year. And new Health Canada research released this year suggests that the actual number of radon-related lung cancer deaths may be up to 50 percent higher.

So how can policy-makers get people to take measures against a killer they can’t see, smell or even easily measure? (The gas has a complex measurement unit whose name — “becquerels” — is difficult to pronounce and remember, in a unit of measure that is hard to grasp: “per cubic metre of air.”) There is no instant detection system like the ones that immediately chirp when they detect carbon monoxide. Homeowners have to test for the gas over several weeks. And the radon gas problem carries a stigma like lice. No one wants to acknowledge the problem for fear it might lower property values, even if the problem has been fixed.

Public awareness campaigns — the current Health Canada approach — are of limited use because, despite the real risks, people tend to discount threats that are not salient and immediate. Appealing to consumer rationality is a slow, uphill battle. The health consequences of smoking took years to sink in. And in 2011 only 36 percent of Canadians responded to the warnings and got a flu vaccine. Even participation in retirement savings programs is often delayed, despite the fact that they offer free money and every day we are not participating costs us in the long-term.

Instead, the solution to the radon gas threat may lie with the emerging science of behavioural economics.

It is an unconventional approach designed to influence people’s actions by playing off our irrationalities and biases, and radon is a perfect challenge.

The best first step might be to change the popular name for the gas into something a little more frightening. How about asking people to deal with “uranium excretion fumes”? That might spur a little action to keep the gas out.

Another step would be to apply the “foot-in-the-door technique,” in which individuals who accept a small, easy request or commitment are significantly more likely to accept a larger request in the future. In a classic experiment advocating safe driving, people were asked whether they were willing to put a large sign in their front yard asking drivers to “Drive Carefully” as they went by. Not surprisingly, most people said no. But the success rate went up significantly when residents were first asked if they would place a small sticker for driver safety in their home or car window. These subjects were then more likely to agree to a request two weeks later to put up a lawn sign.

This technique works because we have a tendency to maintain a stable view of ourselves. Once we have agreed to a commitment (even a small one), we have a natural tendency to behave in ways consistent with that earlier commitment.

The primary purpose of the sticker, for example, was to get the individual to comply with a small, easy request that creates a positive self-image. In order to maintain this image (“I’m a supporter of safe driving”), people feel compelled to follow through on larger requests, even to put up big, ugly signs on their lawn.

This foot-in-the-door technique can be applied to the radon gas problem. Health Canada could create a campaign to encourage people to wear lapel or stickers showing their support for lung cancer patients — the small request. Homeowners could then be approached a few weeks later by radon detection companies, informing the homeowners of the connection between radon gas and lung cancer, followed by the now seemingly not so large request to test their house for radon gas.

Social pressure is another behaviour-inspired measure that works well. Resistance to testing for the gas could be overcome by creating the perception that others are testing, and that our individual procrastination could have broader social implications. Radon detection companies should consider distributing badges that homeowners can place in the window to signal to the community that they have tested for radon. Once a homeowner has completed their testing, they are provided with a white canary sticker for their window, or a small sign for their yard, indicating their house has been tested.

Who wants to be the outlier who is perceived to be willing to put their family at risk? Social competition and herding influences can have a stronger impact than traditional awareness campaigns.

Another psychological barrier preventing Canadians from radon testing is that our mental bucket for home security costs may already be over-burdened and we may dismiss new additions, even if they are important to our health. The solution would be to bundle radon gas detectors together with carbon monoxide detectors, piggybacking on a safety device decision that people are already used to making.

We could also help people understand the threat better by putting radon gas exposure into a measurement they can understand. The current acceptable level of radon in a home, 200 becquerels per cubic metre of air (Bq/m3), could be better expressed in language that means something to us: one breath per 100,000 breaths per year, for example, or, for children, one breath per 20,000 breaths per month.

Small changes in how a problem is framed can have significant impact on how we act. Health Canada might want to explore the small nudges of behavioral economics to help them overcome a policy problem that many of us don’t even know we have.

Photo: Shutterstock by r.classen

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