Part 5 of Behavioural Design interview with Hrishi K of 94.3 Radio One (last one in the series).

 

Part 4 of our Behavioural Design interview with Hrishi K of 94.3 Radio One.

 

Behavioural Design interview on Radio One 94.3 – Part 3

Behavioural Design interview on Radio One 94.3 – Part 2

Behavioural Design interview on Radio One 94.3 – Part 1

if you are a retailer, you ought to know who is pregnant

Amongst big retail chains, it is common knowledge that people’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. Like getting married or moving into a new house or losing or changing a job. But life’s biggest event for most people is having a baby. And new parents’ habits are more flexible at that moment than any other time in an adult’s life. So for companies, pregnant women are gold mines.

I’m seeing a lot of my friends become new parents and they buy lots of stuff – diapers, wipes, cots, blankets, bottles, cribs, the list is endless. Retailers figure out that once sleep-deprived moms and dads start purchasing baby stuff, then they’ll also buy groceries, towels, underwears and whatever is easily available. To new parents, easy matters the most.

New parents are so valuable that companies like Walt Disney, P&G, Fisher-Price, etc in the US, have lots of giveaway programs aimed at new parents in hospitals itself. But for a retail chain like Target, approaching moms in maternity wards can be a bit too late. So Target began marketing to them before the baby arrives.

How did they do that? Target has a baby shower registry and that helps them identify some pregnant women. Target has analyzed shopping patterns of soon-to-be-mothers by looking at their due dates provided by them and linking the shopping done across pregnancy trimesters. Target figured that lots of people buy lotion, but women on the baby registry were buying unusually large quantities of unscented lotion in the beginning of their second trimester. In the first twenty weeks many pregnant women bought lots of vitamins. Lots of shoppers buy soap and cotton balls every month, but when someone buys lots of them, in addition to hand sanitizers and lots of washcloths, a few months after buying scent-free lotions and vitamins, it signals that they are getting closer to their delivery date. Whereas if someone bought a stroller, but nothing else, they probably bought it for a friend’s baby shower.

Target is one of the best retailers at predictive analytics. But they figured that they would need to use this information wisely. After all women can be upset if they received an offer making it obvious Target knew their reproductive status. So how do they get their coupons and offers into expectant mothers’ hands without making it appear they were spying on them?

Target sends specially designed mailers to customers, by mixing in all the ads for things pregnant women would never buy with offers meant for them, so that the baby ads look random. So there’s an ad for a lawnmower next to diapers. Wineglasses next to the offer on infant clothes. As long as the pregnant women thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. And that’s because she assumes that everyone else has also got the same mailer too.

Emotions hugely affect decision-making

We’ve all experienced how we like to shop when we’re feeling down. While that says a lot about our buying behaviour, we never imagined that emotions played a huge role in our selling behaviour as well. This phenomenon is explained by an interesting study below.

Behavioural scientist Jennifer Lerner and her colleagues induced either sadness or no emotion in participants by having them view different film clips. Those assigned to the sadness-inducing condition watched a movie clip from The Champ, which featured the death of a boy’s mentor; following that, they were asked to write a brief paragraph about how they’d feel if they’d been in the situation themselves. Those in the no-emotion condition watched an emotionally neutral film clip featuring fish and then wrote about their day-to-day activities. Afterward, half the participants were asked to set a price to sell some highlighters and the other half were asked to set a price to buy the same highlighters.

Turned out that sad buyers were willing to purchase the item for around 30% more than emotionally neutral buyers. Here’s the interesting part. Sad sellers were willing to part with the item for around 33% less than emotionally neutral sellers! Researchers also found that the participants had no idea that they had been so deeply affected by the residual feelings of sadness.

Behavioural scientists Christopher Hsee and Yuval Rottenstrich argue further that in emotionally charged situations we become less sensitive to the magnitude of numbers – we are more likely to pay attention to the simple presence or absence of an event. We get persuaded by offers when we shouldn’t be. Like when we’re got our eyes set on a new beauty (car) and if the difference between the price of the car and what we’re willing to pay for it is say Rs. 3 lakh – a good salesperson will manage to persuade us by throwing in one or two additional items free like a mirror lock or steering lock, whose value is realistically nowhere near Rs. 3 lakhs.

Lesson for negotiations, buying and selling decisions – examine how you feel and put off the decision until you’re feeling emotionally neutral.

Source: Lerner, A. Small and G. Lowenstein – Heart strings and purse strings: carryover effects of emotions on economic decisions – Psychological Science, 15:337-41 (2004)

We all do as others do

This article of ours appeared in the editorial column of The Economic Times on 29th Dec, 2016

We did an interesting experiment in Mumbai some time back. We got 98 households across a few housing societies in Bandra and Khar to provide us with their electricity bills before the bills reached each member’s house. We then calculated the average bill amount in that particular society.

Let’s say the average was Rs 1,022. For all above-average users, we put a stamp stating that the average in that society is Rs 1,022. Next to their above average amount, we put a frownie indicating that they could do better.

The average number set the social norm and got the above average users to act like their neighbours and reduce their electricity consumption by 1.33 per cent. 1.33 per cent sounds small, but it can power 17,465 villages for one whole year. We called the experiment People Power because it gives people the power to make a difference at no cost.

Human behaviour is contagious. Our actions are often guided by how people around us are behaving. The information provided by the stamp let the above-average users know how much their neighbours were consuming.

That set the social norm and got them to reduce their power consumption. We do as others do. If people see other people littering, they litter too. If people see other people throwing waste in dustbins, they use dustbins too. If people see other people cheating, they cheat too. If people see other people being honest, they behave honestly too.

Behavioural science studies show that people dress in the same styles as their friends, pick dishes preferred by other diners, choose restaurants that are more crowded, are more likely to get fat if people around them become fat, are more likely to quit smoking if their friends quit, pay taxes if others are paying, vote if their spouse votes, and so on. A five-star review on Amazon leads to approximately 20 more books sold than one-star reviews.

This behavioural science principle of ‘social proof ‘ made a popular American infomercial for a home shopping channel change the all-toofamiliar call-to-action line at the end of the infomercial, “Operators are waiting, please call now” to “If operators are busy, please call again”. This simple change led to its sales skyrocketing.

On the face of it, the change seems foolhardy. After all, the message indicates that one may have to waste their time redialing till they reach a sales representative. Yet it worked so brilliantly.

Consider the kind of mental image that’s likely to get generated when you hear, ‘Operators are waiting, please call now’ — scores of bored phone representatives while they wait by their silent telephones — an image indicative of low demand and poor sales.

Consider how your perception of the popularity of the product would change when you hear, ‘If operators are busy, please call again’ — operators going from phone call to phone call without a break, right? That made people think: ‘If the phone lines are busy, then other people like me who are also watching this infomercial must be calling too.

Most people think they are different. But in reality most of us behave the way others do. So powerful is the effect of others on us that television executives love to fill comedy shows with canned laughter.

Experiments by lots of behavioural scientists have found that the use of canned laughter causes an audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented. People rate the material as funnier. In addition, evidence indicates that canned laughter is most effective for poor jokes.

In another experiment conducted by behavioural scientists Noah Goldstein, Robert Cialdini and Vladas Griskevicius (‘A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels’, goo.gl/OJT1pb), different kinds of signs were placed in hotel rooms. One of the signs asked guests to help save the environment by reusing their towels.

The second one informed them that the majority of guests at the hotel recycled their towels to help save the environment. The second sign had a success rate of 26 per cent more than the first sign.

A third sign informed guests that majority of people who had previously stayed in their particular room recycled their towels to help save the environment. The third sign had a success rate of 33 per cent more than the first sign.

Now only if hotels could apply the same principle to reducing theft of towels, shampoos, bedsheets, stationary and, yes, appliances too.

Sources: 1. Schultz, P. Wesley, Jessica M. Nolan, Robert B. Cialdini, Noah J. Goldstein and Vladas Griskevicius, “The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms”, Psychological Science 18:429-34 (2007) 2. Kelman, H. C. (1 March 1958). “Compliance, identification, and internalization three processes of attitude change”. Journal of Conflict Resolution 2 (1): 51–60.) 3. Cai, Hongbi, Yuyu Chen and Hanming Fang – Observational Learning: Evidence from a randomised natural field experiment – American Economic Review 99, no.3: 864-82 (2009) 4. Noah J. Goldstein, Robert B. Cialdini and Vladas Griskevicius – A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels – Journal of Consumer Research 35:472-82 (2008) 5. David W. Nickerson – Is voting contagious? Evidence from two field experiments – American Political Science Review 102: 49-57 (2008) 6. Nicholas A. Christakis and James Fowler – Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and How they shape our lives (2009) 7. Behavioural Insights Team – erstwhile cabinet office of British Government 8. Gary S. Becker – A note on restaurant pricing and other examples of social influence on price – Journal of Political Economy 99, no. 3: 1109-16 (1991) 9. Chevalier, Judith and Dina Mayzlin – The effect of word of mouth on sales: Online book reviews – Journal of Marketing Research 43, no.3: 345-54 (2006) 10. Gregory S. Berns et al – Neurobiological correlates of social conformity and independence during mental rotation – Biological Psychiatry 58: 245-53 (2005) 11. M. M. Smith and R. G. C. Fuller – Effects of group laughter on responses to humorous materials – Psychological Reports 30:132-34 (1972) 12. R. G. C. Fuller and A. Sheehy-Skeffinton – Effects of group laughter on responses to humorous materials: A replication and extension – Psychological Reports 35:531-34 (1974) 13. T. A. Nosanchuk and J. Lightstone – Canned laughter and public and private conformity – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29:153-56 (1974)

Designing effective public policy

This article first appeared in Mint’s editorial column ‘Their View’ on 21st Dec, 2016

Behavioural science should be used to design effective evidence-based public policy

For the most part, designing policy has meant passing a law, a sanction or penalty that imposes a fine or imprisonment to effect desired behavioural change or action. It assumes that the connection between law and actual behavioural is linear. It assumes that people are aware of the law, realize it applies to them, that people weigh the costs of breaking the law with the risk of being caught, overcome the temptations of the moment, in favour of willpower and self-discipline, and comply.

However, in spite of alcohol being prohibited in Gujarat, Nagaland, and Bihar, it is still readily available in these states, and has helped create a network of bootleggers, liquor mafia, spurious liquor, and a complicit police. There are fines for not adhering to traffic laws like honking unnecessarily or not stopping the car before a zebra crossing, but they are far from being effective in getting people to take the desired action. There is a fine for littering, but our roads are strewn with litter. Even when retailers charge for plastic bags, its consumption continues to grow. Fines and sanctions curb people’s fundamental right to choose and, therefore, are met with resistance and are often counterproductive.

A nudge, on the other hand, is a way of encouraging or guiding behaviour without mandating, instructing, sanctioning or monetarily incentivizing. It leaves people with the freedom of choice and yet guides them to act positively. Instead of shutting down choices, a nudge changes behaviour with a lighter touch, a more empirical and behaviourally-focused approach to policymaking.

A pioneer in designing effective public policy by using behavioural design nudges is the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or the “Nudge Unit” of the UK. It was started in 2010, headed by David Halpern and advised by Richard Thaler, with the backing of then Prime Minister David Cameron. Like any new idea, it had its sceptics in government. But over the first two years itself, it demonstrated the value behavioural science could bring in designing policy, based on empirical methods, that led to better outcomes, easier services for the public and most importantly saved government money.

BIT conducts dozens of experiments in the form of randomized controlled trials or rapid low-cost trials in areas such as healthcare, tax, energy conservation, crime reduction, employment and economic growth. Among some of its popular work is how it helped the tax department collect more taxes. BIT worked with the tax department to send out different versions of letters to people who owed tax to test systematically if changing the wording based on behavioural science literature would make a difference. They tested whether adding a single sentence such as “most people pay their tax on time” would boost repayment rates. And it did. By several percentage points, bringing in tens of millions of pounds. It’s because social norms are powerful in getting people to take action. Wording can make a big difference in behaviour change—imagine 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi being reworded as “radiation”.

Another experiment was about motoring fines. It showed that adding an image of the owner’s car to the ticket, captured by the camera, made the owner significantly more likely to pay unpaid car tax. In a third experiment, they encouraged people to insulate their lofts or attics. Insulation reduces heat loss, reduces energy bills and costs much less compared to the overall monetary benefits, yet people weren’t insulating their lofts. They tested two offers—an attic-clearance service and extra discounts. The attic-clearance scheme was more than three times more popular than extra discounts because the biggest issue was attic clearance rather than cost.

In the area of employment, getting the unemployed to think about what they could do in the next two weeks, instead of asking what they had done in the previous two weeks, significantly increased the number of unemployed who got work faster, trimming millions of days off benefits. In behavioural science, such a nudge is termed “implementation intention”.

In the area of pensions, employees now automatically joined the company-sponsored pension scheme by default but still had the option of opting out. So now the default was automatic enrolment rather than actively choosing to do so, making good behaviour easy. That led to more than five million new pensioners. Behavioural science studies by David Laibson, Shlomo Benartzi and other behavioural scientists show that changing the default beats financial education hands down.

Other BIT experiments have showed how simple behavioural design nudges can reduce carbon emissions, increase organ donations, increase quit-rates of smoking, reduce missed medical appointments, help students finish their courses, reduce discrimination and boost recruitment. And like the examples mentioned above, they are low cost, simple and scalable.

India has hundreds of problems to solve that require effective public-behaviour change—waste segregation, energy conservation, reducing road accidents, fuel conservation, cleanliness, adherence to medication, tobacco addiction, open defecation, reducing crime, hand-washing, tax evasion, alcoholism, etc. Instead of relying on law, fines, threats and monetary incentives, why not apply behavioural science and test simple, low-cost behavioural design nudges to see what works? Test, learn and adapt. After all, evidence-based policy is the best policy.

The science of how radio stations introduce new songs

From Left to Right – Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, Grimes (Canadian Electronic Artist) Rihanna and Adele

As the major contributor of content on radio is music, the station ought to be playing hit numbers so that listeners keep tuned in. But how can radio stations afford to play only hit songs, if they are more costly? And what about the promotions of new songs? How do new songs get played on radio stations? And how do they become a hit? That got us digging. Here’s what we found.

There’s a company named Polyphonic HMI – a bunch of artificial intelligence experts and statisticians based in Spain – who has created a program called Hit Song Science. Don’t kill us for this. Hit Song Science analyses mathematical characteristics of a tune by comparing the tempo, pitch, melody, chord progression, and other factors against thousands of hit songs stored in Polyphonic HMI’s database. They predicted the success Norah Jones’s Come Away with me that won 8 Grammys, Santana’s Why don’t you and I that reached number three on Billboard charts. (We don’t know what song they predicted incorrectly.)

The program also predicted the success of a song called Hey ya by hip-hop group OutKast in 2003. When industry folks heard Hey ya, they liked it and thought it would become a huge hit. But when the data came in about listeners across radio stations, a huge number of listeners tuned out within the first thirty seconds itself. What went wrong?

One of the pioneers in studying why and how songs become sticky, Rich Meyers, says, “Sometimes radio stations do research by calling up listeners and playing a snippet of a song, and listeners will say, I’ve heard that a million times and I’m totally tired of it. But when it comes on radio, your sub-conscious says I know this song, I can sing along. Your brain secretly wants that song, because it’s so familiar to everything else you’ve already heard and liked.”

Areas of our brain that process music – auditory cortex, thalamus and superior parietal cortex – are designed to seek out patterns and look for familiarity. Music after all is complicated with numerous tones, pitches, overlapping melodies, etc. Our brains crave familiarity in music, because familiarity is how we manage to hear without becoming distracted by all the sound. That’s why songs that sound ‘familiar’ – even if we’ve never heard them before – get sticky.

The problem wasn’t that Hey ya was bad. The problem was that it wasn’t familiar. So radio stations used the trick of sandwiching Hey ya between familiar hit songs to mitigate risk. If stations don’t take risks with new songs people will stop listening. On the other hand, listeners want songs they already like. So by sandwiching them between already hit songs, stations make new songs familiar as fast as possible. Jiten, partner at Boing recording studio, says, “radio stations mitigate risk by playing new songs that are well promoted on audio-visual media like the TV as well.” Makes sense.

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