To change the habit, change the environment

Habits get automatically activated by our environment, especially so in stressful situations like when you get home hungry and tired – that time our habits are in full control of us. An effective way to change the habit is to change the environment.

Behavioural scientists Neal and colleagues had participants sit in a cinema watching trailers while others sat in a meeting room watching music videos. None were aware that the study was about eating habits; they were told it was about attitudes and personality.

When sitting in the cinema, strong habits cued by familiar circumstances had their familiar effect – people ate popcorn like robots. In the cinema, it didn’t matter whether the popcorn was stale or fresh or whether the person was starving or had a full stomach. Liking for popcorn had very little effect on how much they ate. Those with weaker popcorn eating habit did eat less of the stale popcorn.

In contrast, participants in the meeting room, all behaved, more thoughtful, whether or not they had a strong habit of eating popcorn at the cinema. They ate less of the stale popcorn, and less overall if they weren’t hungry. Even for those with strong popcorn eating habit, the change of environment was enough to disrupt their automatic behaviour. Overall, in the meeting room, people ate 50% less popcorn than those in the cinema.

Then some people in the cinema were told to eat with their non-dominant hand. If they were right-handed, they were told to eat with the left hand. This jolted them out of their habitual behaviour and brought the conscious mind back into action.

Take a close look at your kitchen. Is the first thing you see healthy or unhealthy? What’s easily accessible – fruits or packaged snacks? How big are the containers in which food is stored? How big are the plates you eat out of?

Source: D.T. Neal, W. Wood, M. Wu, D. Kurlander – The pull of the past – personality and social psychology bulletin 37, no. 11 (2011): 1428-1437

Behavioural Design for Employee engagement at Nasscom

It was fun speaking on applying Behavioural Design to improve employee engagement at Nasscom Technology & Leadership Forum on 21st Feb 2019 at Grand Hyatt, Mumbai. I spoke about few high-impact low-cost Behavioural Design nudges, based on experiments in behavioural science, that demonstrate how employee engagement and experience can be improved at the workplace. Given that employee engagement is at abysmally low levels at a lot of companies, it’s high time to apply behavioural science to transform processes like appraisals, feedback, learning, rewards, recognition, productivity, collaboration amongst other experiences to improve employees’ performance and happiness. The Behavioural Design nudges shared raised a good amount of smiles and curiosity. There were inquiries to deliver talks at different companies and do projects to change employee behaviour. Let’s see which of them happen. After all Behavioural Design is about improving conversions.

The journey from taking the lift to walking the stairs

The journey from taking the lift to walking the stairs

How often have we heard that we must take the stairs especially if we need to go to Floor nos. 1/2/3, yet how many times do we take it? It’s an exercise that can be so easily incorporated into everyday life, but awareness yet again doesn’t translate into action.

So a few behavioral scientists put a sign at the bottom of the stairs telling us that walking up the stairs burns about five times as many calories as taking the lift. Sixteen studies analyzed this intervention and found that on average, stair use increased by 50%. Sure this is from a low baseline, because not many people generally use the stairs in the first place, but it does demonstrate that a small nudge can do more than any big-budget-ad-campaign to change behavior. Few stations in Tokyo, Japan like Tamachi station have implemented it by mentioning the number calories burned with each step. And a friend of ours says he feels better while walking up the stairs because he can see how many calories he’s burning with each step.

Of course there’s a way of making climbing stairs fun like the Volkswagen piano staircase, but putting signs is probably a thousand times cheaper.

Source: R.E. Soler, K.D. Leeks, L.R. Buchanan, R.C. Brownson, G.W. Heath and D.H. Hopkins – Point-of-decision prompts to increase stair use: A systematic review update – American Journal of Preventive Medicine 38, no.2 (2010): S 292 – S 300

Psychology and Physiology are deeply connected – Part III

Continuing the series of ‘Psychology and Physiology are deeply connected’, this is the final one.

This experiment is popularly known amongst psychologists as ‘The Love Bridge’ study, named after the bridge in Capilano Canyon, Vancouver where the experiment took place. The suspension bridge spans 450 feet and hovers 230 feet above the ground, causing it to sway as the wind blows. There was another bridge in the area that was a small but sturdy wooden bridge bordered by guardrails, just ten feet off the ground.

At various times throughout the day, researchers Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron, had a young female assistant approach men between 18-35, as they stepped off the end of each bridge with a scripted story – that she was a psychology student conducting a study on the effects of exposure to scenic attractions on creative expression. The assistant would then ask each man to fill out a short survey. When done, she would offer to tell him about the study when she a little bit more time. Then she would write down her name and number and hand it over to the men. Most men happily accepted it and walked off.

As expected the female assistant started getting calls from the men. While only two of sixteen men who crossed the small sturdy wooden bridge called, half of the eighteen men who crossed the suspension bridge called. Why did she miraculously become more attractive to the men who crossed the suspension bridge than to the men who crossed the small sturdy wooden bridge?

Turns out that for the men who crossed the suspension bridge, anxiety and adrenaline translated into a heightened romantic interest in the assistant. Their physiological reactions affected their perceptions and behaviour.

But could the men who took the suspension bridge be more courageous and daring and therefore more likely to take a chance on calling the assistant? 

To test the possibility, the researchers went back to Capilano to conduct a follow-up study. This time the female assistant was stationed only at the end of the suspension bridge. She approached some of the men right after they crossed and others, ten minutes after they had finished crossing.

More men who met the assistant just after they crossed called, than the ones who were approached ten minutes later. The latter’s anxiety had subsided and their adrenaline levels had gone down.

No wonder going for a roller-coaster ride on a date makes sense.

Source: Attraction under conditions of high anxiety – Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 30 (1974): 510-17.

Towards better fuel efficiency standards (Mint)

Towards better fuel efficiency standards (Mint)

This article first appeared in Mint on 11th December 2018.

For years vehicle makers in India have promoted fuel efficiency by communicating how many kilometres per litre their vehicle delivers. But can people who care about fuel efficiency be able to easily calculate the cost of fuel over the lifetime of the vehicle, or over a long period of, say, five years, when fuel efficiency is measured in kilometres per litre (kmpl)? Consider this. If you were to buy a car that gave 15kmpl and cost ₹5 lakh, and were comparing it to another car that gave 12kmpl and cost ₹4.5 lakh, how would you make the decision? Most people think that the fuel efficiency between a car that gives 15kmpl is not that significantly different from a car that gives 12kmpl. Behavioural science studies find that making such calculations is not intuitive for most people. So they tend to use simple rules of thumb to make quick decisions, which leads to biases and errors.

For example, if you cover a distance of 100km using a car that gives 15kmpl, you’ll be consuming 6.67litres of fuel. If you cover a distance of 100km using a car that gives 12kmpl, you’ll be consuming 8.33litres of fuel. This doesn’t seem like a big difference, right? Now imagine you were comparing litres per kilometre (lpkm) expressed as litres per 100,000km. Then at 15kmpl, you’ll need 6,667litres compared with 8,333litres for the 12kmpl car. That’s a difference of 1,666litres and at ₹100 a litre, it comes to an additional fuel cost of ₹166,600.

Now the same facts, when
reframed in terms of litres per 100,000km, look substantial even though it’s the same fact as 15kmpl compared with 12kmpl. Even if we assume you drive about 10,000km a year, then at 15kmpl, you’ll need 667litres against 833litres for the 12kmpl car. That’s a difference of 166litres and at ₹100 a litre, it comes to an additional fuel cost of ₹16,660 per year. So measuring fuel efficiency in a more tangible manner as lpkm can change the way consumers perceive fuel costs and has the potential to alter their choice altogether. Keeping in mind that fuel costs mostly increase every year, kmpl as a measurement of fuel efficiency becomes even less accurate.

Duke University professors Richard P. Larrick and Jack B. Soll wrote about this way back in 2008. They called it the mpg or miles per gallon illusion. For ease of understanding, we’ll use the metric system used in India and illustrate the mpg illusion in terms of kmpl.

Consider a decision between two cars—a current vehicle and a new vehicle that is more efficient. Which improvement do you think will save the most fuel over 10,000km—(a) an improvement from 10 to 11kmpl; (b) an improvement from 16.5 to 20kmpl; (c) an improvement from 33 to 50kmpl? In most likelihood your answer will be c. But surprisingly, all options save the same amount of fuel over 10,000km: about 100litres.

Equal increases in kmpl are not equal in gas savings. Kilometres per litre can be confusing when thinking about the benefits of improving kmpl. For example, an increase from 10kmpl to 20kmpl produces more savings than does an increase from 20kmpl to 40kmpl.

Behavioural science studies have shown that most consumers do not understand the non-linear nature of the kmpl measure. They tend to interpret kmpl as linear with fuel costs. People tend to underestimate the fuel cost differences among low-kmpl vehicles and to overestimate fuel costs among high-kmpl vehicles.

As a result, buyers may well underestimate the benefits of trading a low-kmpl car for one that is even slightly more fuel-efficient. At the same time, they may overestimate the benefits of trading a high-kmpl car for one that has even higher kmpl.

Consumers don’t have that much motivation, time and attention to understand this issue. Even hardcore auto enthusiasts are likely to be making intuitive comparative judgements based on kmpl and are likely to make poor recommendations.

That’s why the researchers Larrick and Soll came up with the behavioural design solution of gpm (gallons per mile) or, in our case, litres per kilometre measured over meaningful distances. Think about which is more useful to know: How far you can drive on a litre of fuel? Or, how much fuel will you use while owning a car?

Kmpl answers the first question and lpkm answers the second question. Also, gpm or lpkm gets directly translated to cost of fuel for the consumer.

In US, the Environmental Protection Agency and department of transportation revised the fuel economy label to also include gpm (gallons per 100miles) and fuel cost over five years compared to the average, in addition to mentioning the mpg. In Europe, fuel consumption labels communicate litres/100km. In India, we’re still following kmpl, but it is difficult to compare kmpl of one car with another that costs a bit more, but has a higher kmpl number or compare a car that costs a bit less and has lower kmpl number.

What matters is how much money we will be spending on fuel over the lifetime of driving the car. And that can directly be calculated by lpkm. Not just that, if appliances like refrigerators can have behavioural design nudges like the energy consumption star ratings, why can’t vehicles get a fuel consumption star rating based on lpkm?

We owe this article to not just Duke University professors Richard P. Larrick and Jack B. Soll, but also to behavioural economist stalwarts Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein because of whom we chanced upon the work of the former professors.






Behavioural Design for safer public spaces (Mint)

Behavioural Design for public spaces

This article first appeared in Mint on 24th Sep, 2018.

Recently it was reported that a 9W 697 Mumbai-Jaipur flight was turned back to Mumbai after take off as, during the climb the crew forgot to select the bleed switch to maintain cabin pressure. This resulted in the oxygen masks dropping. Thirty out of 166 passengers experienced nose and ear bleeding, some also complained of headache.

Aviation safety experts say such an incident was “extremely rare” as turning on the bleed switch is part of a check-list that pilots are expected to mandatorily adhere to. If turning on a switch that regulated cabin pressure is part of standard protocol, how could the pilots make such a simple, common-sensical error. And more importantly how can such errors be avoided in the future?

Traditional thinking suggests increasing the training of the pilots so that it makes them better and thereby avoid such errors. But training is not a full-proof method of ensuring human errors don’t get repeated. That’s because as long as humans need to rely on their memory to ensure the cabin pressure switch is turned on, errors are bound to happen. Sure check lists work. But that’s still a manual method of ensuring that the switch is turned on. And after repeatedly performing the tasks on the checklists over multiple flights, checklists themselves become routine habitual tasks done without much thinking. Also given that there are multiple tasks pilots need to perform in the 3-4 minutes after taking off, the chance of errors happening during those critical moments becomes high.

So instead of the pilot having to rely on their memory or routine check-lists, the answer to avoid such human errors lies in implementing simple behavioural design nudges. For example, if there was a continuous audio-visual reminder that the bleed switch had not been turned on, it would draw the pilot’s attention and it would be highly likely they would have turned it on. Such an audio-visual reminder was not present in this kind of an older generation of aircraft, and therefore the chance of human error increased.

The Japanese have a term for such error-proofing – poka yoke. This Japanese word means mistake proofing of equipment or processes to make them safe and reliable. These are simple, yet effective behavioural design features that make it almost impossible for errors to occur. The aim of error-proofing is to remove the need for people to think about the products or processes they are using. Some examples of behaviourally designed products used in everyday life are the microwave oven that doesn’t work until the door is shut or washing machines that start only when the door is shut and remains shut till the cycle is over. Elevator doors now have sensors that cause them to not close when there is an obstruction. This prevents injury to someone trying to enter as the doors are closing.

Human behaviour cannot be trusted to be as reliable as a machine. In fact, human behaviour is far from perfect. Yes, the people who operate expensive and complicated machines may be the best trained, but human errors in the form of simple error, lapse of judgment or failure to exercise due diligence are inevitable. According to Boeing, in the early days of flight, approximately 80 percent of accidents were caused by the machine and 20 percent were caused by human error. Today that statistic has reversed. Approximately 80 percent of airplane accidents are due to human error (pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics, etc.) and 20 percent are due to machine (equipment) failures.

Another instance of how systems could be made safe by applying behavioural design is of airplane emergency evacuations. During the emergency landing of the Emirates flight EK521 at the Dubai airport in 2016, passengers were running to get their bags from the overhead cabins, instead of evacuating the plane. Only when the airplane staff began yelling at them to leave their bags and run, did the passengers finally pay heed to their calls and evacuate. Just a few minutes after the evacuation, the plane caught fire. It was a near miss situation. Had even a few passengers waited to get their bags from the overhead cabins, many of them would have got engulfed in fire. Again the natural instinct to correct such a situation would be to train people to evacuate and get them to listen to the flight’s safety instructions. But behavioural science studies have proven that such efforts are time-consuming, money-draining, unscalable and most importantly ineffective at changing human behaviour. In such an emergency situation, if the overhead cabins were automatically locked, with a label “Locked due to emergency”, passengers would not waste time trying to open them. That would in turn get passengers to behave in the desired manner and evacuate faster.

Sometimes behavioural design nudges are intuitive. Other times they are counter-intuitive. In a fire-drill experiment by behavioural scientist Daniel Pink, he found that placing an obstacle like pillar in the middle of a doorway got people to exit a hall 18% faster than without the pillar. The pillar was an obstacle but it split up people into two streams at the exit. That got people to use each side of the door, which in turn made the flow of people exiting the hall a lot smoother and faster. When the pillar wasn’t there to separate them at the exit, people bottle-necked at the door making the exit slower. Likewise, behavioural design could go a long way to design safer buildings, machines and systems and reduce human errors.






Psychology and Physiology are deeply connected – Part II

Psychology and Physiology are deeply connected - II

We found the connection between Psychology and Physiology so intriguing that we did more research and found more studies done on it. Intuitively it makes sense – the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind, but chancing upon hard scientific evidence makes it even more convincing.

So Becca Levy and colleagues at Yale got senior citizens over the age of 70 to take a special hearing test. A sequence of three ascending pitches for each ear was played. Each time a senior citizen heard a tone, they were supposed to raise their hand. The average score was 3.53 out of 6.

Next the seniors were asked to write the first five words that came to mind when they thought of an old person. The researchers noted how each senior responded and categorized each answer. The first category was from very positive (e.g. compassionate) to very negative (e.g. feeble). The second category was from external (e.g. white hair) to internal (e.g. experienced). The researchers got two sets of data – hearing test and attitude profile of each senior.

Three years later, the same seniors were invited to take the same hearing test again. This time the average score dropped. But not all participants’ hearing deteriorated equally. Those seniors who used negative and external descriptors to describe old age were worse off. Even after isolating other factors that would diminish hearing e.g. medical condition, the researchers found that the negative and external descriptors were responsible for a 0.7-point drop in a senior’s score – amounting to eight years of normal aging – in just three years. Even participants who scored a full 6 in the first round, and had used negative and external descriptors, experienced worse off diminished hearing.

This proves that negative and external feelings about old age can actually make people physically age faster. The effect is not limited to hearing alone, but to memory loss, cardiovascular weakness and even a reduction in overall life expectancy by an average of 7.5 years.

Sources:

Hearing decline predicted by Elders’ stereotypes – Becca Levy, Martin Slade, Thomas Gill – Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences 61B (2006): 82-88

Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging – Becca Levy, Martin Slade, Suzanne Kunkel and Stanislav Kasl – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (2002): 261-70

Longitudinal benefit of positive self-perceptions of aging on functional health – Becca Levy, Martin Slade and Stanislav Kasl – Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences 56B (2002): 409-17

Improving memory in old age through implicit self-stereotypes – Becca Levy – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (1996): 1092-1107






Psychology and Physiology are deeply connected – Part I

Psychology and Physiology are deeply connected

How do you feel when someone tells you how beautiful/handsome you look? Doesn’t it change your self-perception even if for few minutes or hours? But guess what, it has effects beyond your imagination.

In one of the most fascinating studies we’ve read, fifty-one women were made to have a short conversation on the phone with randomly selected men, thanks to researchers Mark Snyder, Elizabeth Tank and Ellen Bercheid. The women chitchatted about ordinary things – what they did for a living, their background – things you’d normally chat with strangers. But unlike the women, each man had received a bio and a snapshot of her. The bio was accurate, but the photos were fake. Half were of very pretty women, and other half of less attractive women.

As expected the men glanced through the bios, but they gave a hard look at the photos. Before talking to the women, each man was asked to rate his expectations of her. First group of men who saw photos of pretty women expected to interact with sociable, poised, humorous and socially adept women. Second group of men who saw photos of less attractive women expected to interact with unsociable, awkward, serious and socially inept women.

This where the experiment really began. The researchers recorded the calls and created clips of the women’s voices only. These clips were played out to a third group of random men, who knew nothing about the experiment. Listening to just the women’s side of the conversations, this third group of men were asked to rate their expectation of the women. Guess what, they attributed the same traits to the women that men of the first and second group had attributed to them, based on their fake photos.

How did this happen? The researchers explained – Once the men of the first and second group, formed their opinion of the women, it affected every aspect of how they interacted with them. The men talking on the phone with someone who they believed to be pretty, listened more actively and were more engaged. These “pretty” women on the other end unconsciously picked up on cues the men were sending them and took on the characteristics that the men expected them to have. Being thought of as beautiful made the women actually think of themselves as beautiful and exhibit their ‘beauty’ in their conversations. The third group in turn picked up on the cues from the voices of the “pretty” women and rated them as sociable, poised, humorous and socially adept women! Similar was the outcome for women’s voices based on the second group of men’s opinions.

Source: ‘Social perception and Interpersonal behavior: On the Self-fulfilling nature of social stereotypes’ – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35 (1977): 656-66.






A pretty face can even sell high interest rate loans

A pretty face can sell high interest rate loans

That’s what happened in South Africa when a bank wanted to push personal loans to fifty thousand of its customers. In a field experiment conducted by Bertrand, Karlan, Mullainathan, Shafir and Zinman, the bank crafted several variations of the loan offer letter.

They tested lots of variations in features of a direct mailer sent to 53,000 potential customers with formal jobs in urban and semi-urban parts of South Africa. Some of the features varied were proposing uses of the loan, presenting more examples of loans – like loan amount, tenure, rate, payable amount, etc.; displaying interest rates in different ways, showing competitors rates and showing a picture of a pretty woman.

The letters included different interest rates (ranging from 3.25% to 7.75% per month); some featured comparison to a competitor’s rate; others a lucky draw – ten cell phones up for grabs each month; still others a photo of either a man’s or a woman’s pleasant, smiling face. The versions were randomly assigned and mailed off.

To start with the obvious one – customers were significantly more likely to apply for low-rate loans. But two other factors were influential in getting customer response, though they had nothing to do with the terms of the loan. One – the number of loan examples. Mailers with four examples of loans attracted far fewer applicants than mailers with just one example. Presenting more options drove away customers. Showing one loan example instead of four attracted as many additional applicants as dropping the interest rate by about a third!

Second, adding a picture of a pleasant, smiling face of a woman had the same effect on men as lowering the loan’s interest rate by 25%. Surely no customer would say that his decision to borrow boiled down to the picture in the corner of the mailer, but the data was there to prove it. Having a picture of a pretty woman logically doesn’t make for a better financial offer, but what happened is that the men were attracted to the woman and therefore signed up for the loan. And interestingly customers (in South Africa) didn’t respond any differently when the race of the woman was varied. The effect of a woman’s photo on women didn’t make much of a difference as it did on men.

No man would consciously sign up for a higher interest loan just because the offer letter had a picture of a woman on it, right? But male customers made errors in evaluating the attractiveness of the loan because they didn’t focus on the important data. Instinct took over. That’s why its best to A/B test Behavioural Design solutions to know which ones work. Without testing, you will never know what works, what doesn’t and which could be the best solution.

Source: Marianne Bertrand, Dean Karlan, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir and Jonathan Zinman – What’s advertising content worth? A field experiment in the consumer credit market – Quarterly Journal of Economics 125 (1), February 2010.



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