To overcome big problems, think small

To overcome big problems, think small

Most of the times, when we think of big problems, for example, bad hygiene habits of a nation, we tend to believe that the solution also needs to be as big. But it may not require lots of resources to overcome the big problem. Time and again Behavioural Design has proven that the solution needn’t be big in terms of budgets, effort and resources. Here’s one more nudge/ intervention of Behavioural Design that illustrates the same.

In 1990, Jerry Sternin used to work for Save the Children and was sent to Vietnam to fight malnutrition amongst children. Sternin had read a lot about malnutrition and conventional wisdom indicated that malnutrition was a result of intertwined problems like sanitation, poverty, lack of access to clean water and lack of awareness about nutrition.

Sternin instead chose not to be overwhelmed with such theoretical knowledge. Rather, he traveled to rural villages to find out if there were any very poor kids who were big and healthy than the typical kid in Vietnam. He thought that if these kids were staying healthy against the odds, why couldn’t every kid be healthy?

After observing lots of such families for deviations between healthy kid families and unhealthy kid families, he discovered that mothers of healthy kids were feeding them the same amount of food as mothers of unhealthy kids, but were spreading it across four meals rather than two. Second difference was in the style of feeding – mothers who hand-fed the kids had healthy kids vs the norm of kids feeding themselves. Third most interesting finding was that healthy kids were fed tiny shrimp and crabs, considered appropriate food only for adults by most mothers. The mothers of healthy kids also tossed in sweet-potato greens, considered a low-class food.

Conventionally one would tend to believe that if somehow all the mothers would get to know about these 3 healthy ways of feeding their kids, malnutrition could be eliminated. But Sternin knew that mere awareness does not change behavior. So instead of building an awareness program, Sternin created a community program, in which fifty malnourished families in groups of ten, would meet at a nearby hut each day and prepare food with shrimps, crabs and sweet-potato greens.

Mothers got first hand experience of keeping their sons and daughters healthy. Soon neighboring mothers were convinced by the power of social proof. Within 6 months 65% of the kids were better nourished in that village. The experiment moved to other villages. The community cooking program reached 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages. A big dent in malnutrition done with a small team and a shoestring budget!

Source: David Dorsey, Fast company, Dec 2000. Jerry Sternin’s presentation at Boston College Center for CSR in April 2008

Ascent + INK talk on Behavioural Design (Video)

Was a privilege to talk at Harsh Mariwala’s Ascent + INK conclave, along with industry stalwarts like Harsh Mariwala, Chairman, Marico and Uday Kotak, Executive Vice Chairman, Kotak Mahindra Bank.

Topics included irrational behaviour of masses, doctors, air travellers, car drivers; inefficacy of campaigns like Swachh Bharat at changing behaviour; why our government and companies in India need to adopt behavioural design; public behaviour change; Bleep, People Power and how Nudge units are being implemented by governments around the world.

Behavioural solutions for road safety (Mint)

Behavioural solutions for road safety

This editorial article first appeared in Mint on 21st March, 2017

Making roads better should reduce the number of accidents. Yet that’s exactly the opposite of what’s happening in India. Despite measures being taken by the government on improving roads, there has been a continuous increase in road crash deaths since 2007, with a brief annual reduction in 2012. Between 2010 and 2015, incidence of road accidental deaths increased by an annual average rate of 1.2%. There were over 500,000 road accidents in 2015, up from 489,000 in 2014. More than 500,000 people were injured in road accidents in 2015, up from 493,000 in 2014. A total of 146,000 people died in road accidents in 2015, up from 139,000 in 2014. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, out of 146,000 deaths, only 0.8% of the cases were due to lack of road infrastructure.

Road safety is not just about creating infrastructure. It is about designing behavioural solutions that take human biases and irrational behaviour into consideration. When the roads are smooth, wide and empty, drivers are likely to speed. If the car being driven is big and tough, the driver feels much safer compared to driving say, a small hatchback. That makes drivers over-compensate and take undue risks. Regular speed limit signs are ineffective at getting drivers to slow down, because drivers don’t choose the speed based on speed limit signs. Rather, drivers simply go with the flow depending upon the width and smoothness of the road and traffic conditions.

To get drivers to reduce speeding, there have been several effective behavioural design nudges implemented around the world. At the curve of Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive and Oak Street, a series of horizontal white stripes have been painted on the road, that get progressively narrower as drivers approach the sharpest point of the curve, giving them the illusion of speeding up, and nudging them to tap their brakes.

According to an analysis conducted by the city’s traffic engineers, there were 36% fewer crashes in the six months after the lines were painted compared to the same six-month period the year before. Similar behavioural design nudges are now being applied in China and Israel to curb speeding.

In another trial in the UK conducted by Norfolk County Council, more than 200 trees were planted on the approach roads in north Norfolk which had a history of speeding problems. Results found that drivers reduced their speed by an average of 2 miles per hour. Again, as the car approached the village, the trees, planted closer and closer together, gave the impression that the vehicle was moving faster. This encouraged the motorists to slow down.

In another experiment in the US, the Virginia department of transportation painted zigzag white markings instead of the familiar straight dashed lines, to caution drivers approaching the road-crossing intersection used by pedestrians and bicyclists. They found that zigzag markings slowed average vehicle speeds and increased motorists’ awareness of pedestrians and cyclists. They also noted that the effects of the behavioural design didn’t wear off once motorists became used to it—they still slowed down a year after installation.

Building infrastructure like traffic signals doesn’t mean people will always follow them. But creating behavioural design nudges like displaying the seconds remaining for the traffic signal to turn green, is likely to reduce the number of people who break the signal. Such behavioural design takes into account that people are usually in a rush.

Rationally speaking, people shouldn’t be breaking signals because they wouldn’t be acting in their self-interest by putting themselves in harm’s way. But human behaviour is not rational. Drivers honk even when there is no way that honking could clear a traffic jam. Even when the signal is still red, there are drivers who honk. Therefore, rational ways of changing behaviour like educating people or creating awareness-based campaigns are ineffective. What’s effective at getting people to reduce honking is “bleep”—a red button on the dashboard of a car that beeps and flashes when the driver presses the horn. To switch off the red button, the driver has to press it. This behavioural design nudge breaks the habit of drivers’ honking because now each time drivers want to honk, “bleep” makes them deliberate whether they should honk or not. Bleep has been shown to reduce drivers honking by 61% in a six-month and 3,800km-long experiment in Mumbai.

Behavioural design needs to be applied at pedestrian crossings at traffic-signal junctions. At various traffic junctions, there are two signals in view—one signal placed just after the zebra crossing and the second signal on the other side of the junction once you’ve crossed it. That makes drivers keep inching forward, not stopping at the zebra crossing and thus not allowing pedestrians to cross. So to get cars to stop at the zebra crossing, only one traffic signal needs to be placed just before the zebra-crossing stripes begin, so that drivers have no option but to stop to get a view of the one and only traffic signal.

It’s time authorities stopped relying on ineffective money-draining campaigns, driver education and enforcement of laws. Instead, we should test simple, practical, scientific behavioural design nudges to improve road safety.

Behavioural Design & Road Safety (Mercedes Benz)

Behavioural Design & Road Safety

Our latest series of talks is how Behavioural Design can solve key road safety issues like accidents, speeding, honking, making pedestrian friendly traffic junctions, motorbike lanes and ensuring safety for all stakeholders. These talks are being done for Mercedes Benz. If we do get permissions we’ll try to upload the talks. Nevertheless we will write about the Behavioural Design nudges soon.

The science of how radio stations introduce new songs

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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