Decision making on the Great Plains

Roberta Balstad
Project Complete

The goal of this research is to understand the decision architecture of farmers on the Great Plains in the 19th century. It does this by studying the role that external information played in agricultural decision making on the frontier. The sources of information for potential and actual migrants to the region were many—governmental, scientific, commercial, and family and friends—and the information was filtered through a cultural and religious prism. This meant that the role of information in decision making was influenced by meaning that farmers in the area ascribed to it, often based on inherited perceptions of the socioeconomic and policy context within which they lived (or within which they lived prior to migration to the frontier). The work is based on attempts to recreate the conceptual frameworks within which the decision makers operated through examining personal correspondence of migrants into the area and contrasting this with formal publications about the area. While doing this, I have begun to look more closely into the concept of “keywords” pioneered by Raymond Williams. The meaning of the keywords of any society is influenced by both past and present contexts and it, in turn, influences how people think about their society.


Major Findings

  • In the predecessor study to this one, I found that the force and impact of extreme weather variability was strongly mediated by technology (both transportation and agricultural technologies) and by national economic conditions and policies.  Climate change, expressed as extreme weather variability, was only one of many pressures on farmers and was not the most important influence on decisions to migrate into or out of a region.  Farmers were tolerant of extreme conditions as long as they were able to make a living.
  • In this study, the promise of a benign climate on the Great Plains that was projected by government and commercial publications and land agents was a less important influence on migration into the region than was the promise of free or inexpensive land.  The decision to migrate was influenced by cultural values and economic opportunities rather than anticipated climate conditions.   So although the climate and agricultural conditions described in the advertisements sent to attract new settlers contrasted sharply with the pessimism of government geologists who questioned whether agriculture was sustainable in the newly opened lands of the Great Plains, the settlers themselves relied more heavily on the stories they heard from trusted neighbors and kinfolk who had similar values and preceded them to the new land.
  • The dichotomy of affective vs. analytical information processing may be too simplistic in this case where the rational/analytical response is to trust the informants you know rather than the authorities whose message is attractive (territorial and commercial publications) but which comes from sources who have motives that are unknown.  The negative information from US government scientists did not influence migration decisions because their work was inaccessible.


Broader Impacts

  • The broader impacts of this study relate to the role of information in decision making.  Although it is tempting to assume that information is the basis for decision making, particularly decisions with serious economic consequences such as the decision to migrate or not to migrate to a new location, information by itself can be inadequate.  The information must be both available and accessible, the source must be trusted, and the perceived options must be attractive.
  • Second, received information is not accepted without filtering.  It is filtered through previous cultural and socioeconomic experiences and an assessment of the veracity of the information source.
  • Third, decision making takes place over time.  The experience of extreme and unexpected weather conditions in the Great Plains influenced out-migration decisions only after many years’ of negative experience and only when the supporting economic and policy infrastructure appeared to break down.    The body of information about feasible options under these conditions grew slowly and was evaluated in context.   Extreme weather conditions were only one of many influences on major decisions about a family’s livelihood.


CRED2 Award (2010-2015): Funding was provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0951516 awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions; CRED1 Award (2005-2010): Funding was also provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0345840 awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.