Skip to content
  • Blog
  • 23rd Sep 2022

People don’t know what to do in extreme heat

Behavioural insights can help local governments plan for heat waves and keep communities cool

Summers are hot. But the climate crisis is making record-breaking temperatures the norm. 

Heat waves are among the most deadly natural hazards, and typically temperate areas, like Oregon and the UK, have experienced them over the past few years. These heat waves caused black outs and thousands of deathsand will get worse

People who aren’t used to extreme weather may not know how to navigate it. How can local governments shift resident behaviour and better plan for extreme temperatures? Behavioural insights can help mitigate harm caused by excessive heat by ensuring people take action to stay safe. 

Now is the best time to prepare for next summer’s extreme heat

Before heat waves

Incentivise people to retrofit their homes. There are many ways that residents can keep their homes cooler during the summer: covering windows, weather stripping, installing an attic fan, and more. Local governments can use subsidies to encourage take up of these projects. 

Designing these incentives with behavioural insights in mind can help increase uptake. For example, people tend to discount future gains to avoid short-term losses, a behavioural principle called hyperbolic discounting. 

This means that even though a project like weather stripping will save people money on electricity and cool their homes in the long run, the up front cost or effort may dissuade them from taking on the project. Local governments can help overcome this barrier by offsetting immediate losses. For example, our team found that reducing upfront costs is the most impactful solution to promoting heat pump adoption, a costly project to improve home energy efficiency.

Local governments can also use enhanced planning, a key behavioural science technique. Having strong intentions to accomplish a goal is often not enough to make it a reality (eg “I really want to update my resume so I can apply for jobs!”).

However, specifying when, where, and how the goal will be achieved in advance (eg “When I wake up on Sunday, I will go to a cafe and work on my resume.”) has been shown to have a significant effect on goal attainment for actions like getting a flu shot, saving for retirement, and attending tutoring sessions.

When presenting retrofit options, helping residents create a plan for each step in the process (eg checklist for required forms, schedule installation date and time, etc) may help them follow through on their intentions.

During heat waves

Communicate simply and memorably. Behavioural science has shown that the simpler something is, the more likely people will understand it and take action. During a heat wave, the most important thing local governments can do is inform residents of their options for keeping themselves and others cool, whether that be visiting a cooling center or staying hydrated.

Communicating this information as concisely as possible will help make it top-of-mind for people. We have found this to be the case in situations across sectors, from washing hands properly to prevent disease transmission to communicating policy messages from central banks to the general public.

The time and place that residents receive messages can also have an effect. “Avoid using the oven or stove for cooking,” is a common heat wave communication. If placed in a grocery store—where shoppers are able to choose foods that do not require heating—people will be more likely to act on the message.

Leverage behavioural insights to encourage prosocial behaviors. Behavioural insights can help protect those who are most vulnerable during heatwaves, such as people with disabilities. For example, checking on elderly neighbors or relatives is a key tactic to keep people safe. Messaging framing such as, “Protect each other,” appeals to our collective identity, and may be particularly effective in encouraging the non-elderly to check in. This style of messaging also leverages social identity, social influence, and moral behaviour.

Older adults may be well-positioned to check on one another, too. This balance creates a relationship of reciprocity—a social norm where people feel motivated to reciprocate others’ actions toward them. Research examining neighborhood assistance indicates that reciprocity plays an important role in provision of care under normal circumstances, suggesting that it may be significant during heat waves.

Making the most of the next nine months

This summer was the third hottest on record in the US. We have strong reason to believe summer 2023 and beyond will be even hotter. As global efforts like Net Zero tackle the climate crisis on a systemic level, local governments can take critical steps to keep communities safe. Now is the best time to prepare for next summer’s extreme heat.

If you’d like to explore using behavioral insights to make heat wave efforts more effective, please contact Marcos Pelenur at

And next month BIT will be running an exclusive virtual workshop led by Marcos Pelenur designed to help leaders in sustainability apply behavioural insights to advance their organization’s environmental goals.

The half-day event is being held on both the 11th October and 18th October.

Learn more and register for the workshop here