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Getting people to care about the environment? It's all in the pupils...

New research at Trinity College Dublin is aimed at better understanding what drives human choice when presented with a lot of information.

shutterstock_128857243 Source: Shutterstock/Piotr Krzeslak

WHEN IT COMES to the environment, most of us, you would hope, are in favour of doing our bit to preserve it.

Unfortunately, a genuine problem facing the likes of our own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is whether or not technical information regarding a product’s environmental impact can actually be understood by a layman.

This has led to groundbreaking new research at Trinity College Dublin, commissioned as part of the EPA’s 2014-2020 research programme, which measures the extent to which people are diverted by environmental data – and it’s all done via the eyes.

Eye-tracking infra-red technology is used to see what people look at and focus upon when presented with a wealth of information.

Heat Map A

Heat Map B A BER energy rating and how the eye processes it (not the red heat signature over the A rating in the top-left of the image

An infra-red beam is positioned below a computer screen, which, along with special software, is used to record how much time is spent viewing certain information on a screen, and confirm in what order the information is viewed.

The information derived from the research is then represented onscreen by a sort of heat map – showing what the subject looked at first and looked at longest.

“A huge number of factors can – and do – influence decision-making, so it is really important that we better understand what motivates people, and why,” says Associate Professor in Civil Engineering at Trinity Brian Caulfield, who is leading the work.

The first step is to understand how people interact with information and handle the different questions and options they are presented with – these new eye-tracking approaches are invaluable in that regard.

While eye-tracking is far from new, the context in which it is being used here is a world first. And its findings?

“People are interested in environmental considerations, that’s what we’ve found. So if they’re buying a fridge say and they’re looking at the energy rating, or if they’re judging a house’s BER (Building Energy Rating) they know that A is good and further along is bad,” says Caulfield.

But a product’s review and quality comes first ahead of environmental information.
We’re looking to influence the design of these labels to get people more engaged, and that’s what the EPA is looking to do. Because if it happens in Ireland it’s applicable across the EU.

The group’s work is due to be published shortly, and researcher Dr William Brazil says it “opens the door to a myriad of possibilities” (the technology has already been used in cyclists to see what they see, and how adept they are at noticing hazards).

“There is no reason why we can’t use this eye-tracking technology to better understand human behaviour in areas ranging from road safety and hazard identification, website and marketing design, through to new approaches in education and learning,” says Brazil.

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