Making decisions under stress

This article of ours first appeared in The Hindu on 23rd July 2021.

The pandemic has made it more difficult for us to think rationally

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the biggest disruption to lives since the Partition in 1947 for those in India. It has caused dramatic shifts in our personal and work lives. It has, of course, caused illness and taken away many of our loved ones. It has caused many people to lose a substantial portion of their incomes. It has posed new behavioural challenges to governments and individuals. It has created great uncertainty. In short, the pandemic has put us all under immense stress. It has been so stressful that the one thing that every person on the planet wants right now is for the pandemic to end and for life to go back to pre-COVID-19 days.

Chronic anxiety

The stress caused by the pandemic has sustained over a long period of time and can be categorised as chronic stress. When we face stress, the body releases a hormone called cortisol. Prolonged exposure to cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, increases the risk of heart disease, sleep disruptions and mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Chronic stress has been found to kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

Studies in behavioural science show that we don’t tend make good decisions under stress. In fact, they have repeatedly shown that we often don’t make good decisions even in normal times. For example, we know exercising is good for our health but we don’t do it enough. We know overeating is bad for us but we still indulge in it often. We know binging on social media takes away time from doing what we are supposed to be doing but we can’t stop scrolling. This is some of our behaviour in normal times. Given that we are now facing chronic stress, our behaviour is becoming more irrational. For example, outdoors is generally a safer place to meet people than indoors because of a greater degree of ventilation. Yet, people feel safer indoors than outdoors. Indoors are generally safer than outdoors at protecting us, but not during the pandemic. People are more likely to wear masks outdoors, where it is actually safer, and remove their masks indoors, which at a time like this is risky behaviour.

After the first COVID-19 wave declined in India, people began travelling, holidaying, partying and attending weddings. There was no availability of vaccines then. When people had little protection against COVID-19, they behaved fearlessly. But now, even after partial or full vaccination, people seem more scared of contracting COVID-19 than they were after the first wave. Studies around the world are showing that most vaccines are demonstrating more than 90% protection against hospitalisation due to COVID-19. One would think that should make people less fearful, but that’s not the case.

Mindless investing

While most people are facing a drop in income, those with disposable incomes have begun investing their money on their own. Brokerage firms in India have reported the highest number of demat account openings in the past 15 years. Driven by the fear of missing out, a large number of newbie investors have begun following their herd by investing money in India’s stock markets and even in cryptocurrencies. But history shows that retail investors, especially the inexperienced newbies, are the last to enter bull runs, buying stocks and assets at high prices, because people in their social network are making money. People love making easy money. History shows that such irrational investing leads to bubbles that eventually burst leaving such investors with massive losses. People have begun buying and selling cryptocurrencies. These are not currencies but mere speculative instruments because they are neither backed by any underlying asset nor by the government. In fact, ‘crypto’ means hidden or secret. But history shows it’s no secret that such speculative manias are caused by our own irrational behaviour. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for us to think rationally.

Co-WIN, casinos and luck

This article of ours first appeared in The Hindu on 1st June 2021

The psychology behind trying our luck at booking a vaccine appointment is the same as in gambling.

The experience of booking an appointment to get vaccinated in India has been rewarding for some but frustrating for most. The procedure for a citizen to get vaccinated is to register on the Co-WIN website or Aarogya Setu app and schedule an appointment at a preferred centre. It sounds easy until you try it. Soon you realise that no matter how fast you click the confirm button, it’s not easy to get an appointment. That’s because vaccines are in short supply. And that is because the Government of India hasn’t placed enough orders.

People who have been trying to get an appointment find someone or the other in their social network who got lucky with an appointment. That motivates them to keep trying. The system of getting vaccine appointments has become gamified with vaccination centres releasing alerts of slot openings on social media. These alerts inform people about the openings of vaccination slots at any time of the day or night. They keep people hooked on to the game of ‘fastest finger first’ to book an appointment.

Vaccination and gambling

The psychology behind why random alerts and repeated log ins into the website to try one’s luck at booking an appointment works is the same as why people gamble money in casinos or buy lottery tickets. At a casino, people put money in the slot machine and press the button. People don’t know if they’ll win. They can’t predict it. But they believe that the odds of winning increase the more they play. So, they keep gambling. Of course, most people lose more than they win because the odds are always in favour of the casino, which makes most of the money. In the case of trying their luck at getting a vaccination appointment, people eagerly wait for alerts of slot openings, log in and press the confirm button. People don’t know if they’ll ‘win’ an appointment. They can’t predict it. But people believe that the odds of ‘winning’ an appointment increase the more they log in. So, people keep trying. Of course, most people don’t ‘win’ appointments because the odds are not in their favour. The only difference between gambling at casinos and booking vaccination appointments is that in gambling, the casino wins most of the time. But regarding vaccination, both the government and the people lose.

Active conditioning

In Ivan Pavlov’s experiment of classical conditioning, the dogs in the experiment would start drooling when they heard the sounds associated with food preparation. They would drool when the bell rang even though no food was present. After a while, the dogs would stop responding if no food appeared after the bell was rung. But psychologist B. F. Skinner found that rats and pigeons would continue doing the task much longer if they were rewarded occasionally rather than every time. Both are types of conditioning, but Skinner’s conditioning was active, whereas Pavlov’s was passive. The dog didn’t have to do anything conscious to get the reward, whereas the rat and pigeon had to undertake a task. Making the animal take an explicit action produced a stronger, longer lasting effect on behaviour.

Humans respond in similar ways as rats and pigeons when given an occasional reward for repetitive behaviour. Casinos give players the illusion of control by letting players place chips and play their cards. Giving them choices and making people take action makes them feel like they have some control, as opposed to giving purely luck-based unpredictable rewards. In case of vaccinations, the government is giving people the illusion of control by encouraging people to log in and try their luck at booking an appointment. Giving people the choice to take action towards booking an appointment makes people feel like they have some control, even though the odds are highly stacked against ‘winning’ an appointment. There is an element of surprise or uncertainty, so people are never sure when the appointment will come through. This is keeping people engaged. The question is, should the government be operating vaccinations like a casino?

No learning from the Spanish Flu

Patients lie in an influenza ward at a U.S. Army camp hospital in Aix-les-Baines, France, during World War I.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CORBIS

Hey there, quick update before you proceed, we’re happy to be back after the very first break we’ve taken since we began in 2012. Happy to share that Mayur and me are writing our first book, hence the long break. Here’s an article I wished I didn’t have to write. It did hurt. Behavioural scientists are human too 🙂

This article first appeared in The Hindu on 18th May, 2021

The governments of most countries have failed to understand and predict human behaviour 

In the beginning of COVID-19 last year, thousands of people around the world shared an image on social media depicting the three waves of the 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish flu. The image had the headline, ‘Humanity should never allow a repeat of the same mistake made in 1918, in the time of COVID-19’. The image read, “The most severe pandemic in history was the Spanish Flu of 1918. It lasted for 2 years, in 3 waves, with 500 million people infected and 50 million deaths. Most of the fatalities happened in the 2nd wave. The people felt so bad about the quarantine and social distancing measures that when they were first lifted, the people rejoiced in the streets with abandon. In the coming weeks, the 2nd wave occurred, with tens of millions dead.”

This post contained a mix of accurate and inaccurate information. The estimates are accurate and the second wave was indeed the most deadly. However, according to James Harris, a historian at Ohio State University, part of the reason why the flu spread like wildfire causing a second wave was because officials were unwilling to impose restrictions during wartime despite the existence of a new mutated strain. 

Lessons from the past

This shows that we haven’t been able to learn from history to prevent millions of infections and deaths worldwide. One would believe that knowledge makes one wiser. But in reality, knowledge doesn’t change behaviour. Knowing about the Spanish flu is very different from having to live through a similar pandemic. Knowing about masks being protective doesn’t make people wear them. Knowing about social distancing doesn’t make people practise it.

In most countries, people got tired of lockdowns, wearing masks, staying at home and not socialising last year. Human beings are social animals after all. Social ostracisation has been shown to cause pain in the brain similar to putting up with physical pain. So, as the number of cases began to fall by the end of the first COVID-19 wave, governments and people around the world started to let their guard down. Amongst many businesses that were allowed to resume, for example, restaurants which were suspected to be one of the major centres for the spread of COVID-19 were given permission to open. Signs outside their establishments read ‘No entry without mask’, but once inside, visitors could remove their masks even while not eating. They talked, laughed, sneezed and coughed in indoor non-ventilated spaces. These visitors would have known about the dangers of this behaviour, some of them may have read about the Spanish flu. But awareness and action often lie at opposing ends.

Lifting restrictions

Each one of us has to contribute to break the chain of COVID-19 infections. However, the ultimate responsibility of managing the pandemic cannot lie with the masses in today’s modern societies; it is the job of governments. But governments of most countries failed to learn from the Spanish flu because they failed to understand and predict human behaviour. In India, the government allowed election rallies and religious gatherings. It hesitated in imposing a lockdown despite the emergence of new strains of the virus. Leaders were often seen addressing crowds and conducting meetings without masks. Every politician wants to win over people and give them what they want (in this case, freedom from lockdowns). But declaring victory prematurely gave rise to policies that caused the second wave.

India had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other countries which opened up too soon after the first wave. But it didn’t. This has led to the huge spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Perhaps it was overconfidence in the government’s ability to manage the pandemic or an underestimation of the ability of COVID-19 to cause infections and deaths in the second wave or both that led to the surge in infections. While vaccines weren’t available during the Spanish flu, we have the benefit of curbing COVID-19 by vaccinating people now.

Categorising activities in the context of the pandemic

This article first appeared in the opinion section of The Hindu on 28th August 2020.

In the initial days of COVID-19, towards the end of March 2020, India went into a lockdown. The number of daily new cases at that time was 87. But the fear of contracting the virus was very high. Now after five months, the number of daily new cases has crossed 75,000, but the fear of contracting the virus has reduced. Why do people misunderstand risk?

One reason is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not novel anymore. But more importantly, behavioural science studies show that numbers don’t move people. When we read that three million people in India have contracted COVID-19, most people can’t make much sense of it. But when someone close to us in proximity or relationship contracts COVID-19 or succumbs to it, the fear becomes tangible. People suddenly feel vulnerable. Otherwise, people feel invincible, even though the risk of contracting COVID-19 actually keeps increasing with daily cases increasing.

Guided by emotions

Emotions cause us to misunderstand risk. For example, flying is something that many people get scared of even though flying has become an extremely safe mode of transport. Zero people died in a plane crash last year in India, while over 1,50,000 people died in road accidents. Yet, people feel scared of flying, not of driving on Indian roads.

Flying evokes a powerful emotional response. You are literally up in the air, in the hands of a machine and two pilots. If something happens up there, there is nothing you can do about it. This makes flying feel unsafe even though it is among the safest modes of transport.

Likewise, some people believe that they should not step out of their homes because going out means that they will catch COVID-19. In reality, going for a walk in an uncrowded area with a mask on is relatively safe. Some of the same people believe that staying at home is far safer than stepping out. So, they have started keeping their househelps at home. This is relatively risky, because distancing may not be possible within a typical home in urban India and droplets exhaled, sneezed or coughed out tend to stay in the air indoors for longer.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 in any given situation can be categorised as ‘very high’, ‘high’, ‘medium’, ‘low’ or ‘very low’. Visiting a gym generally would fall under ‘very high’ risk, while playing tennis would generally fall under ‘very low’ risk, even though both activities are related to fitness.

However, since each situation demands assessing the risk of contracting COVID-19, it complicates people’s decision-making.

Colour-coding different tasks

To simplify decisions, people rely on short-cuts. For example, if you stay at home, you are safe. If you believe in god, you are safe. If you are healthy, you are safe. If you have a particular deity at home, you are safe. Such simplifications, using which people assess the risk, make COVID-19 a dangerous pandemic.

To help people get a better understanding of risk, the government needs to devise a simple behavioural design. Just like a traffic signal communicates ‘stop’, ‘ready’ and ‘go’ with ‘red’, ‘orange’ and ‘green’ colours respectively, our daily activities need to be categorised as ‘red’, ‘orange’ and ‘green’.

Having outsiders visit your home would be ‘red’, visiting retail stores would be ‘orange’ and meeting a friend at an uncrowded park while keeping a safe distance and wearing a mask would be ‘green’.

If people can’t judge risks accurately, COVID-19 is likely to continue to spread like a raging fire in a forest.

Forced to adopt new habits

This article first appeared in The Hindu on 14th May 2020.

Starting new habits is tough and requires overcoming inertia. Most of the time humans like maintaining the status quo. The majority of us don’t change the default settings when we buy a new mobile phone. Nor we do change the default settings of any new app we download. The tendency to stick with defaults happens across different aspects of our lives, from personal to social to office work. But this pandemic has jolted us out of our inertia.

We’re now doing new things that we haven’t done before. Those not used to cleaning their own dishes or homes are doing so now. Those not used to working from home are forced to do so now. Managers who wouldn’t allow their teammates to work from home have no choice but to ask them to work from home now. The pandemic has forced us to start new habits.

One habit that we Indians are not used to is maintaining sufficient physical distance from one another in public spaces. There are many reasons for this. Urban cities are densely packed with people. Houses in slums are cramped. Few roads have footpaths, forcing pedestrians to take up a portion of the road. Lanes are narrow; even main roads are narrow. Trains and buses are always packed. Queues are long. The population is overwhelming.

Environmental factors

Behavioural science studies are showing evidence that a large part of human behaviour is led by environmental factors. In normal times we don’t pay much attention to our environment because we don’t need to. If one has to take a crowded train to work because of lack of better choice, we get used to it because the goal is to get to office, in time. The environment becomes part of our sub-conscious. We navigate through life, lanes, stations, etc. without paying much attention to our surroundings. But the pandemic is now making us aware of our surroundings. Besides behaviours like hand washing, sanitising and wearing masks to prevent contracting COVID-19, the pandemic is driving another big behavioural change — keeping safe distance.

Merely informing people that they need to maintain at least six-feet distance from one another is not enough. People tend to forget about distancing while talking to one another. Maintaining distance is an alien concept for us.

That’s why we’re now seeing examples of behavioural design nudges in our environment that help us in maintaining distance in public spaces. Markings in the form of circles and squares are being painted outside grocery stores and pharmacies to help people maintain distance. People are now standing in these circles and squares while waiting in queues. I hope relevant authorities implement this rule, wherever crowds need to be managed.

Maintaining physical distancing

Around the world behavioural design nudges are being implemented to help people keep safe distance from one another. Restaurants in Hong Kong are putting tapes over alternate tables so that people do not occupy tables next to each other. A bus station in Thailand has put stickers on alternate seats so that people sit leaving one seat empty. Schoolchildren in Hangzhou, China are being made to wear caps with fan-like blades so that they cannot come close to other children. A police station in Thailand has placed transparent protective shields on desks creating a barrier between the police inspector and civilians. 

We are likely to see many more examples of such behavioural design in the near future that help us keep safe distance, because the lockdown will eventually be lifted.

To see examples of Behavioural Design for keeping safe distance, click here – Instagram

Making doctors wash hands

This article first appeared in The Hindu on 24th April, 2020

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, a Hungarian-born doctor came to Vienna in 1846 to work at the city’s General Hospital. Dr. Semmelweis noticed that women delivered by doctors had three times higher mortality rate than women delivered by midwives. He spotted a link between the lack of hygiene of the doctors and the mortality rate of the mothers. After he initiated a mandatory hand-washing policy, the mortality rate for women delivered by doctors fell from 18 percent to about 1 percent. Despite such a brilliant outcome, the idea of hand washing was rejected by the medical community. Doctors were offended by the suggestion that they could be causing infections. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only two decades after his death, when Louis Pasteur, of pasteurization fame, raised awareness of pathogens.

From 1850s to 2020, hand washing has been advocated as a simple way of reducing the risk of infection. But even after 170 years, studies find that doctors still do not wash their hands often. A systematic review of studies on compliance with hand hygiene in hospitals, done by researchers Vicki Erasmus et al, found that only 32% of doctors and 48% of nurses wash their hands between seeing patients. Another study by researcher Didier Pittet, an infection control expert with the University of Geneva Hospitals, Switzerland found that compliance rates for hand washing amongst doctors and nurses was only 57 percent, and years of awareness programs urging doctors to wash up or use disinfectant gels have had little effect. A study of hand hygiene compliance amongst Indian doctors by researchers S. K. Ansari et al, found only 49% of doctors and 56% of nurses washed their hands with soap between patients.

If India needs to contain the spread of Covid-19, everybody ought to be washing our hands, especially doctors and nurses. But how can we change their hand washing behaviour?

The traditional approach of changing behaviour is to educate doctors and nurses on the importance of hand washing. It seems like the rational and logical thing to do, but even though doctors and nurses know that they should be washing their hands, they forget to do so. That’s why we need to apply behavioural design. Behavioural design is about creating subconscious nudges right at the moment where the desired action is to be performed, in our case where hand washing needs to happen.

Behavioural scientists piloted a low-cost experiment in rural schools in Bangladesh where behavioural design nudges were used to guide hand washing with soap after toilet use. Hand washing stations were built in visible and easy‐to‐reach locations, brightly colored paths were painted from toilets to the hand washing station, and footprints and handprints were painted on the path and at the hand washing station. Hand washing with soap after using the toilet went from 4% before these behavioural design nudges nudges were created, to 74% six weeks after they were introduced. No other hygiene education was communicated as part of the study.

Similarly, in hospitals where wash basins and hand sanitizers are placed, stickers of brightly colored footsteps should be placed so that doctors and nurses get attracted by them, which subconsciously directs them to the wash basin or the hand sanitizer. Such behavioural design nudges influence doctors and nurses to wash their hands with soap or sanitizer without making a conscious decision to do so. Hand washing is often done as a relatively subconscious habitual action, and can be easily triggered by contextual cues, so hand washing lends itself well to such behavioural design nudging. An experiment done at the Gentofte Hospital in Denmark has found that hand sanitizer usage increased from 3% to 67% when the hand sanitizer was placed in a prominent location with bright signage that caught people’s attention. Not bad for such a simple and low cost intervention.

Creating social bonds while physical distancing

This article first appeared in Mint on 6th April 2020

Till a few weeks ago almost nobody in the world knew what social distancing meant. But since the spread of Covid-19, the term ‘social distancing’ has gone viral too. It implies steps that need to be taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus by maintaining a physical distance between people and reducing the number of times people come into close contact with each other. It involves keeping a distance of six feet from others and avoiding gathering together in large groups. It is critical in curbing the spread of the virus and must be followed as far as humanly possible.

But the term ‘social distancing’ means to avoid being social. That’s unnatural for most humans. Humans are a social and emotional beings. We survive and thrive being social. Children are attached to their parents. Grandparents love spending time with grandchildren. Siblings are emotionally close to each other. We all have friends who are our life supports. In India, house helps are like extended family. But now because of Covid-19 we suddenly need to follow social distancing from the people who are always there for us precisely in times like these. It goes against human nature. That makes using the term ‘social distancing’ inappropriate.

Matthew Liebermann, a social neuroscientist, has conducted several studies on how our brains processes social pain. He finds that to the brain, social pain feels a lot like physical pain. The more rejected the participant felt, the more activity there was in the part of the brain, that processes the distress of physical pain. What’s surprising is that studies show that drugs that treat physical pain, like paracetemol, can also reduce emotional pain like social rejection, because similar brain circuitry is engaged when we feel physical pain. That’s perhaps why we express social pain in terms of physical pain, like “she broke my heart”, “he hurt my feelings”. Social pain is real pain. Social pain is associated with decreased cognitive functioning, increased aggression and engagement in self-defeating behaviors, like excessive risk taking and procrastination. So its safe to assume that social distancing in today’s times must be causing real pain too.

Over the past few days we’ve been seeing people in various countries come out in their balconies and sing songs, play music and cheer the people who have been dedicating their time, risking their lives serving patients and delivering essential supplies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed the nation twice requesting we all stand in solidarity. It may not mean much for people who can easily take care of themselves during these times. But for the rest of us, his aim is to boost morale, because levels of stress and anxiety are rising. We humans don’t like uncertainty. We don’t know how long it may take for the vaccine to be made available for most of our population. We don’t like being caged in our little homes away from our social bonds. These times call for social bonding, not social distancing. Thankfully social bonding is possible today because of being able to stay connected over voice and video calling. We can talk to each other about how we are feeling, what we cooked, the jokes our children are cracking, the dreams we’re getting at night and details about the quarrels between couples.

On March 20, the World Health Organization officially changed its language. “We’re changing to say ‘physical distancing,’ and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove. Language matters. Just like how ‘climate change’ is now refered to as ‘climate crisis’ by media, ‘social distancing’ needs to be refered to as ‘physical distancing’. So start exercising physical distancing and social bonding, because this pandemic is going to last quite some time.

Get rid of that tricky habit of touching your face

This article first appeared in Mint as an opinion editorial on 31st March 2020.

Few days back Dr. Sara Cody, director of the Santa Clara County’s Public Health Department, US was speaking at a press conference about a simple, yet vital, way on how people can stop coronavirus from spreading: Don’t touch your face. “Today, start working on not touching your face — because one main way viruses spread is when you touch your own mouth, nose, or eyes,” Dr. Cody, said at the press conference. Less than a minute later, Dr. Cody brought her hand to her mouth and licked her finger to turn a page in her notes.

It’s not just Dr. Cody, millions have the habit of touching their tongue before turning the page of a document, especially the elders, who are at the highest risk of catching coronavirus. This is just one of the instances of touching a part of the face. The bigger problem is that almost every human being in the world has a habit of touching their face, including me and probably you too. A study by scientists in New South Wales, Australia, Kwok, Gralton and McLaws, found that on average people touch their faces 23 times an hour. What makes this behaviour tricky is that it’s a habit.

Habits are automatic behaviours that are done sub-consciously. They are actions that we perform frequently on auto-pilot. That’s precisely why they go unnoticed. This makes habits tricky because we aren’t even aware of it. Honestly this is the first time, being a behavioural scientist, that I’m even thinking about touching my face. I must be doing it all the time everyday without any realization whatsoever. But now we’re finding that coronavirus can spread easily, by touching surfaces that may be infected with the virus, and then touching any part of the face like mouth, nose or eyes – where the body’s mucous membranes are vulnerable to infection. That’s bringing up our habit of touching our face and making us aware of it. But even after being aware of it, I can’t help touching my face.

Ironically, the more you want to consciously avoid something, the more you think about it. So the more one thinks about not touching the face, the more it makes you want to touch your face. You are probably wanting to touch your face right now. That’s because you’ve been momentarily made conscious of your face, eyes, nose and mouth. This simple fact makes you want to touch it, perhaps as simple as scratch your cheeks a little or adjust your eyebrows or itch your nose. The other reason is psychological reactance. People cannot resist indulging in precisely what they’ve been told to avoid. It’s like being on a diet. When people are on particular diets and forbidden to eat certain foods, it makes them want to eat those foods even more.

Touching the face is an instinctive response. A recent study by behavioural scientists Mueller, Martin and Grunwald show that face touching is involved with coping with stress, regulating emotions and stimulating memory. Other researchers have established it’s an instinct we share with monkeys and apes. Gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees all exhibit similar face-touching behaviour. But what can we humans do to prevent touching our faces and prevent getting infected this way by coronavirus?

Washing hands is the need of the hour. But we also need to use our hands often to open doors, press lift buttons, use keyboards, drink from glasses, use pens, open and shut taps, and a hundred other things that  we don’t think about. How often can one wash hands or even use the hand sanitizer. It can be overwhelming if we have to wash hands after touching everything. I’m not recommending we don’t do it. I’m simply saying that it’s not practical to keep washing hands after each and every interaction.

Keeping our hands away from our face requires a lot of willpower. But willpower has been shown in behavioural science studies to always be limited in supply. Willpower works temporarily in the moment when one is conscious but wears out quickly as we slip back into doing things subconscious i.e. habits. Willpower is a bit like our muscles. The stronger our muscles are, the more we can work them out. But eventually they tire out. Similarly, the stronger our willpower is the more we can work them out but eventually we tire out. So willpower is not a dependable way of avoiding to touch our faces, while touching our face is going to be unavoidable.

That’s why we need to rely on behavioural design to help us not touch our face. Behavioural design is about tweaking our environment, right at the time and place our behaviour takes place, to achieve the desired action. For example, to reduce the quantity of food intake, instead of relying on willpower, if we reduce the size of the plate we eat from as well as the size of the spoon, we’re likely to eat less. Similarly, to avoid touching our face with our hands, we could try keeping a clean tissue at a close distance. By using clean disposable tissue we could prevent our bare hands from touching our eyes, nose and mouth. You can use a small portion instead of one whole piece to conserve paper. Small things make a big difference.

The limitations of asking questions in research

Researchers ask people for their opinion about their product, packaging or concepts to pick insights about their appeal, and get wonderful feedback that is sincere, detailed, and emphatic but has little relation to the truth.

We wrote about ‘Why focus groups cannot be relied’ earlier on the blog. Here’s another perspective – impression management. Impression management is one of a diverse array of forces that influence our truthfulness. Here’s a behavioural science study in which White college students were asked to state their level of agreement (ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’) with the following two statements:

  1. It is a bad idea for Blacks and Whites to marry each other.
  2. Black people are generally not as smart as Whites.

Half the participants who were asked these questions received them the Black researchers and other half from White researchers. All participants were assured that the answers would be confidential.

When the questioner was Black, the participants’ responses were noticeably more Black-favorable than when the questioner was White. The impression management effect occurred without the subjects being aware that their answers had been influenced by the race of the questioner.

Impression management produces flawed, inaccurate responses to many questions, not just race related. That’s why we don’t ask people questions or conduct surveys or focus groups. We rely on the knowledge of the human brain, cognitive neuroscience, behavioural economics and thousands of proven experiments conducted by behavioural scientists on human behaviour, to create Behavioural Design solutions that make the impact.

Source: J.B McConahey, B.B. Hardee & V. Batts – Has racism declined in America? It depends on who is asking and what is asked – Journal of Conflict Resolution 25, 563-579. (1981)

Honesty: such a lonely word

Honestly, how many of us are honest all the time? We would like to believe we are honest, good, wonderful, moral people but at the same time we also would like to benefit from cheating if it helps us economically. But can both happen together? Can we cheat a little and yet think of ourselves as wonderful honest people. Apparently the answer is Yes.

Says Dan Ariely, “Due to our flexible cognitive ability, and due to the fact that we can rationalize things very quickly, as long as we cheat just a little bit, we can both benefit from cheating, just a little bit, and we can still view our self as honorable people.” And that’s he calls the fudge factor.

Once Dan ran an interesting experiment in which he gave people a sheet of paper with 20 simple math problems to be solved in five minutes and paid them $1 per correct answer. At the end of the 5 min people counted how many ones they got correctly, shredded the sheet of paper, announced how many questions they got correctly and got paid accordingly. What the people in this experiment didn’t know is that the shredder only shred the sides of the page. Dan found that people solve 4 problems, but they report to be solving 6. And most of the people cheated. He tried the experiment with 25 cents, 50 cents, $2, $5, $10 but the results were similar – lots of people cheated a little.

In another experiment Dan went to UCLA, and asked about 500 students to try and recall the Ten Commandments. None of them could recall all Ten Commandments. But after getting them to try and recall the Ten Commandments he gave them the same math task. And the result was – zero cheating. Regardless of whether one was religious or an atheist, nobody cheated.

Just thinking about morality seems to shrink our fudge factor, gets us to be a bit more careful about our own behavior and therefore allows us to be more honest.

Dan also tried a secular version of the experiment. He edited one sentence to the beginning of the test. “I understand that this short survey falls under the MIT or Yale honor code – Signature.” What happened? People signed, they did the test, they shredded, no cheating whatsoever. And no cheating whatsoever despite the fact that neither MIT nor Yale actually had an honor code.

Source: Dishonesty of Honest People – A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance – Nina Mazar, On Amir and Dan Ariely – Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 45, No. 6, pp. 633-644 – 2008

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