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All we need is a nudge

All of us need encouragement from time to time because species of our kind is known to get easily demoralised. That’s why motivating ourselves or others is so bloody challenging. Especially, when we are on the path of changing a habit or achieving some kind of goal. Sense of progress becomes critical to get us moving. If we don’t get feedback, we could easily get derailed. And that brings us on to one of the most interesting studies we’ve read.

In 2007 researchers Alia Crum and Ellen Langer published their study of hotel maids and their exercise habits. They figured that an average hotel maid cleaned fifteen rooms a day, and each room took 20-30 minutes to complete. Now visually imagine them doing it. Walking, bending, pushing, lifting, scrubbing, dusting for 7-7.5 hours. That’s heavy duty exercising. But before the study began 67% of the maids said they didn’t exercise much! That’s like Arnab Goswami of Republic. complaining that he doesn’t get a chance to speak on air.

As part of the study one group of maids received a document describing the benefits of exercising and were told that their daily work was sufficient to get those benefits – that exercising didn’t only mean hitting the gym – it simply required moving of muscles to burn calories. The maids were also given a list of type of their work activity and calories burned. The maids in the second group were only given the document describing the benefits of exercising.

One month later maids who had been told that they were good exercisers lost an average of 1.8 pounds (about 0.8 kg). The other maids hadn’t lost any weight. Crum and Langer investigated possible explanations. Group one maids weren’t exercising outside of work nor working more hours nor had they changed their diet in any way. So Crum and Langer assigned the weight loss to the placebo effect – awareness of the ‘exercise value’ of their daily work triggered the weight loss – the maids got a mental boost from the ‘daily work is exercise enough’ knowledge.

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, Switch and Decisive, argue that in placebo effect situations apply to conditions that are self-reported. For instance, instead of a pain medicine, you take an anti-depressant and the doctor asks you “How do you feel?” and report saying you feel better. But in the case of the maids losing weight, the scale reported real weight loss – not just a feeling of the maid. The Heath brothers say “The maids having gotten a jolt of enthusiasm from the good news, may have started scrubbing the showers a little more energetically than previously and maybe started walking a bit more and took the stairs. They exerted extra effort because now they believed they were perhaps closer to their goal of exercising and losing weight than before.”

All we need is a nudge. Nudge is all we need.

Source: Alia Crum and Ellen Langer – Mind-set matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect – Psychological Science – 18 – 165-171 (2007)

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

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

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.

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

 

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.

Know the basics of creating habits

This is the story of Claude Hopkins, who helped establish tooth brushing as a daily habit. Yup there was a time when tooth brushing wasn’t a habit .

So how did Hopkins get people to brush? He found a cue, a reward and a craving for that reward.

Faced with the task of selling Pepsodent, he sat down with a pile of dental textbooks. Dry reading, much of what we do to keep the blog stories interesting. That’s when he chanced upon mucin plaques on teeth. It’s the film that builds up on teeth regardless of what you eat or how often you brush. The film is a naturally occurring membrane that you can get rid of by eating an apple, running your finger over your teeth, brushing or vigorously swirling liquid in your mouth. Toothpaste didn’t do anything to help remove the film. But that didn’t stop Hopkins from exploiting his discovery. He decided to use this film that was universal and impossible to ignore, as the cue to trigger the habit of brushing.

Moreover the reward was enticing – a prettier smile making you look beautiful. All it took to get rid of the film and look beautiful was to brush with Pepsodent.

But countless studies, including famous ones of the brains of monkeys by Wolfram Schultz, neuroscientist at University of Cambridge, have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts anticipating the reward, will it become automatic. The habit only emerges when in Schultz’s experiments the monkey began craving the juice upon seeing the cue or when a smoker’s brain starts anticipating a hit of nicotine upon seeing the pack of his/her favourite cigarette brand or when your brain starts anticipating the momentary distraction of checking your cell when it vibrates or lights up with a new message.

Likewise, Pepsodent had created a craving. Unlike other pastes of its period, Pepsodent contained citric acid and mint oil that created a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums. Once people craved that cooling, tingling sensation – once they equated it with cleanliness – brushing became a habit. The tingling doesn’t make the toothpaste work any better. It just convinces people its doing its job. Two weeks after the campaign launched the demand exploded.

Many product categories can get kicking, if only they get back to the basics – cue, reward and craving for the reward.

Source: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Does it really take 21 days to form a habit?

In the preface to his 1960 book ‘Psycho-cybernetics’, Dr Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon turned psychologist wrote:

It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image. Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the “phantom limb” persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to “seem like home”. These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.’

Self-help authors of 21 days to this, that and everything, may have reasoned that, if self-image takes 21 days to change, and self-image changes lead to changes in habits, then habit formation must take 21 days. Although ‘21 days’ may perhaps apply to adjustment to plastic surgery, it is unfounded as a basis for habit formation. Here’s the proof:

In an 84-day study by researchers at University College London, 96 participants were asked to choose an every day behavior that they wanted to turn into a habit. They all chose something they didn’t already do that could be repeated every day like eating a piece of fruit (behavior) with lunch (cue) or doing 50 sit-ups (behavior) after morning coffee (cue).

So how long did it take to form a habit? On average it took 66 days until a habit was formed. And contrary to what’s commonly believed, missing a day or two didn’t much affect habit formation.

But here is the relevant part. There was considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do. People who resolved to drink a glass of water after breakfast were up to maximum automaticity after about 20 days, while those trying to eat a piece of fruit after lunch took at least twice as long to turn it into a habit. The exercise habit proves trickiest with 50 sit-ups after morning coffee, still not a habit after 84 days.

Interestingly, there were quite large differences between individuals in how quickly automaticity reached its peak, although everyone repeated their chosen behavior daily: for one person it took just 18 days, and another did not get there in the 84 days, but was forecast to do so after as long as 254 days!

So it’s unwise to attempt to assign a number to habit formation. The duration is likely to differ depending on who you are and what you are trying to do. As long as you continue doing your new healthy behavior consistently in a given situation, a habit will form. But you will probably have to persevere beyond January 21st if you are attempting a New Year’s resolution.

Source: Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle – How habits are formed: modeling habit formation in the real world – European Journal of Social Psychology 40, no. 6 (2010): 998-1009.

Numbers don't move us

Millions of Indians don’t have access to clean water, sanitation, electricity, education, healthcare, banking. The list can go on. The ones with access to all of it, including myself, are aware of the fact that millions go without it everyday. Yet it hardly moves us to do anything about it.

That’s the problem with statistics. It just doesn’t activate our emotions. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has exposed this blind spot in our sympathetic brain. He asked people how much they were willing to donate to various charitable causes. Slovic found that when people were shown a picture of Rokia, a starving Malawian child, with emaciated body and haunting brown eyes, they donated generously to the Save the Children. However, when other people were provided with a list of statistics about starvation throughout Africa – more than 3 million children in Malawi are malnourished, more than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance, and so forth – the donation was 50% lower. At first glance it makes no sense right. When people are informed about the real scope of the problem, they should give more money, not less.

But what happens is that the depressing numbers leave us cold. Our minds can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. That’s why we are riveted when a kid falls in a bore well but turn a blind eye to millions who die every year due to lack of clean drinking water. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Source: Paul Slovic – “If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide – Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 2, no. 2, April 2007, pp. 79-95.

Behavioural Design on comedy show Cyrus Says

Human behaviour is funny. That’s why popular comedian Cyrus Broacha invited us to understand what Behavioural Design is all about.

We spoke about why Indian men stare at cleavages, touch inappropriately, spit in public, why we honk indiscriminately, don’t allow pedestrians to cross in India, why we behave irrationally in general and what can be done about it. We spoke about how men look at women’s bodies and how women look at men’s bodies, how to reduce smoking, how to avoid over-eating, why its time for the Indian Government to begin applying behavioural science like the US and UK governments are applying. We spoke about behavioural science principles like social proof and overconfidence and our projects Bleep and People Power. Download Saavn to hear the non-sense – http://www.saavn.com/s/show/Cyrus-Says/2/2mYLF,EZgkk_

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