Be Smart in Nature 

As humans, we often act illogically… but many of our tourism systems are designed around unrealistic assumptions that people are consistently rational and logical in their decisions. Why? 

The answer to these questions can frequently be found through a deeper understanding of human behavior and thought processes. With this knowledge we can guide decision-making processes, to improve the tourism experience for guests as well as strengthen positive, and minimize negative, behavior in natural land-&-seascapes. 

This is the first in a 7-part series of articles, co-written by Simon Jones (NatureScapes) and Milena Nikolova (BehaviorSMART), focused on understanding human behavior and how it impacts tourism in natural spaces.

Behavioral economics in the tourism sector is the fusion of psychology, neuroscience and tourism expertise. Although a relatively new field, it allows us to ‘translate’ and better understand decision making as well as be realistic about how people really think, decide and act in a landscape or seascape. 

Integrating behavioral understanding into tourism planning, development and marketing can have many benefits. It can guide how we plan tourism in a destination 

as well as optimize the design of physical infrastructure and tourism services to achieve specific positive behavior and improve profitability, sustainability and marketing activities. 

This ‘behavioral optimization’ can occur at different levels. It can concentrate on things as specific as pricing structure and the order of information on tour descriptions to achieve specific goals. Similarly, it can tackle complex large-scale issues such as minimizing water consumption or reducing single use plastics across a land-or-seascape. 

To understand a little more about peoples’ thought processes, let’s start with a story

Understanding Behavior: A fable about a psychologist, a neuroscientist and a tourism professional

A psychologist, a neuroscientist and a tourism professional walked into a restaurant for a meal. The tourism professional was having a busy day and told the waiter to give him the most popular dish on the menu. The neuroscientist sat for a long time considering all the options and finally decided on a fish dish that was the ‘chefs special.’ The psychologist noticed that the restaurant highlighted dishes that were sourced from local farms, and selected a vegetarian burrito from those options. 

The psychologist asked her friends why they made the choices they had, as she was interested in understating the thought process in making their meal selections. 

  • The tourism professional said he didn’t have time to focus on food so figured whatever was most popular would be fine. 
  • The neuroscientist said she loved eating out and trying new things. She had read some reviews earlier in the day, analyzed the menu and based on her taste preferences had made a selection. 

Hmmm, said the psychologist looking at her friends with a smile. They looked back feeling like they were being psychoanalyzed… which of course, they were! Nodding to the tourism professional, she said, you used the first system of decision making. You made a fast decision that didn’t require a lot of thought or energy and used social conformity (opting for the dish that is selected by the majority of clients) to make a decision. Then, looking at the neuroscientist she said, you used the second system of decision making, rationally analyzing all the options, taking your time and some effort to consider pros and cons, and then selecting what best fit your taste. 

The meals arrived. The fish was exquisite, the burrito divine and the tourism professional got a large bowl of chips and queso… the most popular dish on the menu! 

Rather disappointed with his choice of food, the tourism professional asked what made the psychologist select her meal. I was steered towards my choice by the restaurant, she said. They highlighted on the front of the menu that they are trying to buy food, sourced locally to ensure that they can offer fresh produce and natural food options. A picture of one of the farmers was on the menu; the menu items that used locally sourced ingredients were marked with a symbol and the waiter talked about the local sourcing program when they provided the menus. Doh! said the tourism professional, I should have just gotten what you ordered. That’s still the ‘first system’ of decision making, laughed the psychologist, you are just following what others select. 

Later in the conversation, the tourism professional asked why his choice had not worked out as well as he hoped. Well, said the psychologist, we all break our thought processes into two systems based on the amount of time and energy we want to put into each decision. Our neuroscientist friend used logical, rational analysis to determine what she wanted to eat because she wanted to spend the time and energy to get it right. You were in a rush and had other more important priorities on your mind; food was not a high priority, so you shortcut the thought process by selecting the dish that was popular with the majority of the restaurants’ clients. This made the decision much faster and effortless, but not necessarily the most rational or well thought-out choice. 

I’ll let you know a little secret, smiled the psychologist, I also used the ‘first system’ of decision making in selecting my food. How, asked the Tourism professional starting to feel hungry again? 

The decision was made easier for me, said the psychologist, as the restaurant had already gone through some of the analysis process on my behalf, highlighting items that were sourced locally and stating that they are fresher, more natural and authentically local – all appealing factors for me as a client appreciative of good food. I made a decision by following what they recommended, which was also a decision-making shortcut. 

Guiding Behavior in Natural Land-&-Seascapes 

So, how is the story above relevant for tourism in natural spaces? 

Making a decision on what food to eat at a restaurant applies the same thought processes as making travel decisions. Knowing when people are likely to use which decision-making process (the impatient shortcut-loving System 1 or the slower analytical System 2) allows us to design the tourism experience in ways that  help travelers make the right decision for them and the place they will be visiting. 

Travelers tend to use System 2 (more logical, rational analysis) when they are planning and researching their options pre-travel as they have the time to analyze information and pick the  optimal choice. However, when traveling, people’s minds and senses are engaged with the sights, sounds and smells of the new place; they want to relax and enjoy their time rather than spend too much time on information gathering, so more decisions are made using System 1 thinking (quick, without a lot of rational analysis). 

Encouraging visitors to make certain decisions before their departure, could help to ensure that these decisions are more rationally driven and remove the burden of having to make choices when they are on their holiday. Influencing the timing of a decision and providing information that is likely to influence preferences could, for example, help guide visitors away from overcrowded sites and towards other interesting, under visited sites. 

However, final choices, especially related to the activities on a specific day, are increasingly made during the trip itself. Given this, we can design choices in ways that reduce the decision-making burden on visitors, because we know they are likely to be using System 1 decision making. For example, we can bring select day tours that include a community visit to the front of a brochure or search platform, with a symbol signaling a truly authentic cultural experience, encouraging selection of these over other tours. This is similar to the process our Psychologist used to select her meal in the fable about the restaurant. 

Further reducing the decision-making burden, we can also make the select tour ‘default sustainable’ meaning, for example, the tour provides reusable water bottles and jugs of water for guests as the default option and you have to specifically ‘opt out’ if you insist on water served in plastic. 

Messaging is also important to help guide behavior, especially when travelers are likely in ‘System 1’ mode. For example, on a tour, a guide may explain at the beginning of the tour the need for social distancing and masks inside  buildings. On its own this message will likely be forgotten within about 5-minutes. The guide therefore links that message to a personal ‘impact,’ explaining that we all want to protect our family members and keep them healthy, so please use your mask indoors for their safety. Even that reinforcement may slip people’s mind when they walk into a building and are distracted by the sites, so physical signage and temporary barriers that require guests to stop, remember what action they need to take  and go around them before entering a building help improve mask usage. As a final reinforcement of the message, the guide can select two guests from the group to help them remind other guests to put on masks when entering the building. This added social pressure helps to achieve the optimal behavioral pattern for mask use across sites. 

Applying behavioral thinking to tourism in natural landscapes or seascapes provides a different lens through which to understand the root causes of people’s undesirable actions and create solutions that can strengthen positive outcomes and mitigate negative behavior. 

We will further explore the topics highlighted above, and more, in our next articles in the series, including how behavioral thinking can apply to: 

  • Overtourism
  • Promoting positive visitor behavior
  • Planning tourism based on behavioral realities
  • Sustainable design of tourism offers 
  • Pricing and packaging tourism activities 
  • Understanding traveler decision making during their travel planning phases 

Watch for our next article “Overtourism” next week.