Seeing engineering through the lens of behavioral science

Engineers have a reputation for being dispassionate analysts—yet as Leidy Klotz, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, points out, engineers are subject to the same unconscious biases that behavioral scientists have shown affect all people. Klotz believes that we can set the stage for engineers to choose more ambitious performance goals, if we frame the specifications for infrastructure projects in ways that make the most of these biases.

“Society lives for a long time with the decisions that infrastructure engineers make,” Klotz said. “It is in everyone’s interest that these are the best decisions possible.”

Anchored by Low Expectations

One well-documented influence on decision-making is the anchoring bias, which refers to people’s tendency to match their efforts to specified standards. Collaborating with behavioral scientists, Klotz conducted a study that highlights the consequences for sustainable infrastructure development. They found that the effectiveness of building rating systems like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED designation or the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star certification is affected by anchoring bias.

They randomly assigned industry professionals to one of three different anchoring standards: a 30 percent improvement over traditional practice, a 90 percent improvement, and no anchor at all. In this last case, the professionals were free to set their own goals for energy performance. The results were no surprise: Respondents anchored at 90 percent and those with no anchor at all set higher energy performance standards than respondents assigned the 30 percent anchor.

“The results suggest that building rating systems that only reward incremental energy improvements may inadvertently create anchors,” Klotz said. “In doing so, they discourage a level of energy performance that is technically and economically feasible.”

Putting Loss Aversion to Work

Klotz’ analysis of the Envision rating system, which is used to promote sustainability in such infrastructure projects as roads, bridges, pipelines and dams, highlights the effects of prospect theory, another set of biases identified by behavioral scientists. The Envision rating system is divided into five categories, and engineers start at zero and gain points as they ascend the five levels of achievement in each category.

 At the core of prospect theory, however, is the idea that a loss is more sharply felt than a gain of equal value. With this concept in mind, Klotz and his colleagues developed an alternate reward system. They proposed awarding participants the points associated with completing the fourth highest level, with the proviso that points would be deducted if the necessary requirements were not met. When they randomly assigned these two approaches to engineers at an Envision training session, they found that framing the decision as a loss motivated engineers to set significantly higher goals for sustainability.

“All in all, an interdisciplinary approach to setting specifications, employing insight from the behavioral sciences, is a low-cost solution for encouraging greater sustainability in infrastructure development,” Klotz said.

Reframing Engineering

Klotz doesn’t limit himself to reframing the practice of engineering. He is using insights from other disciplines to reframe thinking about the profession itself. For instance, he has conducted research on how best to encourage women and members of underrepresented minorities to become engineers.

“The research we have done shows that emphasizing the impact that engineering can have on societal problems is attractive to a wider, more diverse group of people,” he said. “Too often, we focus on the technology behind a bridge or a building when we might more productively be talking about the need for mobility and shelter.”

Klotz, who has a joint appointment in the UVA School of Architecture, is also reframing engineering education as an interdisciplinary experience. He is teaching a class that is made up equally of engineering and architecture students, with a smattering of students from other schools.

“As a teacher, I’ve learned a lot from my colleagues in architecture about how to encourage students to be creative,” he said. “And my students say that their favorite part of the class is interaction with students with other perspectives. Thanks to the University’s size and residential culture, this is the kind of experience that is possible to provide our students.”