Environment researcher looks at how psychology and culture affect decisions about water.

Sarah Wolfe

Strip out everything in our lives and there are only a handful of things we absolutely cannot live without. Water is at the top of this list. Since the beginning of human history, our ancestors were constantly forced to make decisions to secure their water supply.

Sarah Wolfe, a researcher in School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, uses environmental psychology to observe how decision making about water is wired into our consciousness, our culture – and how it shapes societies’ interaction with the water.

“I want to get underneath the explanations of political will, economic incentives, policies and regulations and understand what’s happening at the individual level,” Wolfe says. “If we can understand why and how people, including the experts, make certain emotion-driven decisions around water, then perhaps we can make water governance processes and negotiations even more effective across increasingly diverse groups of stakeholders.”

According to Wolfe, one aspect of this, “why and how” might be understood through the lens of terror management theory. The theory holds that the unique human emotion of fear is so profound; we spend our lives constrained by cultural norms and building things like monuments and even public works projects to give our temporary lives meaning, secure resources and power and thus mitigate this fear.

“It’s early days yet but I currently have students searching for evidence of terror management theory indicators in post-Walkerton media, in public and private bottled water campaigns, and in historical documents written around major infrastructure projects,” says Wolfe.

A subsequent study will unpack the relationship between supply and demand management paradigms using terror management theory.

Wolfe began researching water while studying abroad as an undergraduate in the city of Haifa. The University of Waterloo’s recent research partnership with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa includes co-operation between the institutions on water issues.

Not only is water there a scarce and carefully managed resource, but its management directly impacts many of the cultural, religious, political and built landscapes at the core of terror management theory.

"Water people - experts all over the world - are a funny bunch. We talk about the pipes, prices and policies but what remains unsaid is our emotional connection to water that motivates us. I want to find out more about this motivation and then use that knowledge for decision making and negotiations."