Bottled Water: Why We Buy It

Bottled Water: Why We Buy It


By Suzanne Forcese

Psychologists understand the intricate relationship between our emotions – whether conscious or unconscious – and our behaviors which often are divorced from rational thought and impervious to logical argument. The study of emotions, and the understanding of how they can side-rail the best laid plans, is not an area that crosses over to other disciplines and certainly not to policy making.

Water Today reached out to Sarah Wolfe, Ph.D., associate director of the undergraduate studies School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS), University of Waterloo. “In the field in which I work – research on the interactions between people, society and water – the role of emotions generally, and of disgust specifically, is largely ignored,” Dr. Wolfe submitted in an email exchange with WT.

“All of us – researchers, policy-makers, corporate leaders and members of the public – should begin to recognize how the presence, intensity and even absence of disgust can critically influence our water decisions,” Dr. Wolfe believes.

Drinking water is a prime example. Our perceptions of ‘contagion’ can elicit the emotion of disgust – something which bottled-water companies successfully exploit. In water-scarce areas, the collection, cleaning and reintroduction of ‘dirty’ water including sewage into water systems is a proven method to safely maximize drinking water. However, thoughtful water management which is backed by good science and implemented through innovative infrastructure can still be rejected by this kind of disgust.

Dr. Wolfe, describes herself as “a water person to the core, being constitutionally incapable of working within disciplinary boundaries.” In her research approach she has stylized these attributes to “gather, translate and combine the insights from geography, psychology, cognitive science, and knowledge- management with findings on water decision-making processes.”

The emotion of disgust can actually become a two-edged sword because it can also be a powerful force for positive change. Certainly, there is the negative aspect when we are repelled by the perceived contagion in the drinking water supply. It is a strong enough motivation to look to bottled water as a source. And yet we know it is environmentally damaging, much more expensive and often subject to less stringent testing and regulation than tap water.

“This is a really exciting time to be doing the work I’m interested in. People are slowly waking up to the reality that science and facts aren’t enough and that emotions are immensely powerful drivers, not just something shameful or distracting.”

Human emotions are complicated. “Given the many and multiplying stresses on our drinking-water systems it’s time to stop ignoring how powerful and universal emotions can both help and hinder our water decisions,” Dr. Wolfe concludes.

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