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Mirror, mirror on the wall

(The image is an exception to positive ways of using mirrors)

This article first appeared in The Economic Times (ET) on 31st March, 2017

A greater degree of self-awareness can make us conscious of what we think, say and do. Self-awareness seems to originate somewhere in the mind. It feels like we become aware of something when we look inside.

But there’s another way of making ourselves self-aware, and that’s literally by looking at ourselves in the mirror. Doing so causes us to reflect on our behaviour and act in more socially desirable ways. Several behavioural science studies validate this phenomenon.

In an interesting experiment, behavioural scientist Arthur Beaman and his colleagues called children to a known local house in the neighbourhood. Aresearch assistant pointed to a large bowl of candies on a nearby table and told the children that they could take one of the candies.

The research assistant then mentionedthat she had some work to do and exited the room, while another research assistant was secretly watching the kids through a hidden peephole. The experiment revealed that over a third of the kids (33.7 per cent) in this control group took more candy than they should have.

The behavioural scientists then called another bunch of kids to the house and repeated the same experiment.

For this test group, they angled a large mirror by the candy bowl in such a way that the kids had to look at themselves in the mirror when they took the candy. Theft rate in the test group was only 8.9 per cent compared to 33.7 per cent in the control group.

Says behavioural scientist Robert Cialdini, “Mirrors could reduce stealing or dishonesty and could even be seen as a good alternative to video surveillance, which is not only costly but sends a signal to people that they’re not trusted.”

In another experiment, led by behavioural scientists Carl Kallgren, Cialdini and R Reno, when participants arrived at their laboratory, half were exposed to a CCTV featuring their own image — it was almost like seeing themselves in a mirror — while the other half watched a CCTV featuring random geometric shapes. The participants were told that their heart rate was to be monitored, which involved placing some gel on their hand.

Once participants believed they were done with the study, they were given paper tissues to wipe off the gel and asked to exit by taking the stairs. The researchers were looking to see whether the participants dropped the paper tissues in the stairs on their way out. The experiment revealed that 24 per cent of participants who saw themselves in the CCTV littered, compared to 46 per cent of those who didn’t see themselves in the CCTV.

There are many studies including two more done by Melissa Bateson and Stacey Sentyrz-Brad Bushman, which have found that mirrors — or other possibilities that produce mirror-like effects — persuade us to behave in more socially desirable ways. People made self-aware are less likely to cheat.

Those made self-aware by acting in front of a mirror or TV camera exhibit increased self-control, and their actions more clearly reflect their attitudes. In other experiments done in front of a mirror, people taste-testing cream cheese have found to have eaten less of the high-fat variety.

We wouldn’t possibly be digging our noses if we saw ourselves in the mirror, would we? On a serious note, two practical behavioural design solutions come to my mind, based on such behavioural science experiments.

One is that customer service executives in face-to-face retail environments have to sometimes deal with customers who are not particularly considerate, or are even rude. Only an experiment can tell if a mirror placed behind the customer service desk could get such customers to behave better. On the other hand, mirrors could also help customer service executives be more conscious of their own appearance, speech and sincerity, thus improving the customer experience.

A second behavioural design solution could be placing mirrors in the corners of staircases of buildings that have stain marks caused by people spitting. Spitting is often an unconscious act where the spitter spits out of habit. A mirror is likely to make people who spit at corners of staircases conscious of their action, preventing them from spitting at those spots.

Sure, spitting in the outdoor environment needs a different behavioural design solution. But for spitting in staircases of buildings, mirrors could be tested to see if they reduce spitting.

Behavioural Design interview on Radio One 94.3 – Part 2

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.

We do what others do

You may be saying to yourself ‘People follow what others do, but I’m different.’ Then again everyone feels like that. And that makes you no different than me.

Most of us learn by following what others do and that’s how societies develop. Also, if we care about what other people think about us, then we’ll go along with the crowd to avoid social exclusion (peer pressure), though we may not be aware of the degree to which we’re socially influenced. Here are few such interesting influences that make us behave in a particular way.

In a real-world experiment tax officials in Minnesota, US gave groups of taxpayers different kind of information. Some were told their tax was put to good use in education, etc. Some were threatened with punishments for noncompliance. Others were given helpful information like how to fill their tax forms, etc. Remaining were told that more than 90% of Minnesotans already complied, in full. This last intervention generated the most impact on tax compliance, proving that desirable behaviour can be increased, by drawing public attention to what others are doing.

In another study conducted by Schultz, 300 households in San Marcos, California were informed about how much energy they had used in previous weeks. They were also given average consumption of energy by households in the neighborhood. In the following weeks, the above-average users, reduced their energy consumption; but the below-average users, increased their energy consumption! If the current action is better than the social norm, then people should not be informed of the norm. An addition of a smiley, to indicate that below-average users’ consumption was socially favored, brought the consumption down again. Our experiment People Power was based on this experiment.

As Behavioural Designers, if we want to change people’s behaviour, we should let people know about what other people are doing. Though if people’s behaviour is undesirable then care must be taken to craft the intervention. The other day we saw an ad of Olay Total Effects anti-ageing cream in a women’s magazine. The headline read as ‘Does life really end at 30?’ while the copy went on to explain in bold letters that ‘82% of married women worry more about cooking the right food for their mothers in law than choosing the right cream for their skin.’ And ‘83% of women worry more about the marks their kids get in exams than the marks on their skin.’ ‘Your priorities may change but why let the skin suffer?’

The ad condemns women’s behaviour but also highlights that the undesired behaviour is common. Women will subconsciously interpret the message to be ‘Majority of women feel that way, so why not me?’ therefore it will be counterproductive for Olay and P&G. We may not admit it, but we do what others do.

Source: 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 (2007): 429-34

Moving towards Swachh Bharat (Mint)

This article written by us appeared in the editorial section of Mint on 30th September 2016

A couple of weeks back, a video made by a private organization promoting the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, featuring Kangana Ranaut and other Bollywood actors, went viral. The video depicted the picture of goddess Lakshmi disappearing from photo frames when people indulged in littering. The narrator on the video was Amitabh Bachchan, who said that the goddess of wealth lives only where there’s cleanliness. It ended with a plea by Bachchan and Ranaut to keep the country clean by not littering. Though the government didn’t issue this particular video, it has issued other, similar ad campaigns in public interest that promote the use of a public toilet instead of open defecation.

It is largely believed that ad campaigns change public behaviour by creating a change in people’s mindsets, which in turn leads people to take the desired action. But changing behaviour is not so easy. There are too many assumptions for this model of awareness leading to action.

The first assumption is that people can recall the message all the time. The second assumption is that the message is successful in motivating people to such an extent that it prompts them to act. The third assumption is that at the moment of actual behaviour, people would have the right amount of motivation, and also the ability to act in the desired way. That is a tough ask.

This is not the first time that the government has used ad campaigns to try and change public behaviour. In the recent past, campaigns like Save Fuel, Save Money have been aimed at changing driver behaviour by asking them to switch off car engines at traffic junctions to save fuel. Do you remember the campaign? If you don’t, crores of rupees in the form of advertising have been wasted. But let’s assume you are one of the few who do recall this message. Has it changed your behaviour? Do you now switch off your car’s engine at traffic signals?

Most people don’t. It’s a lot of effort. You need to turn the ignition off every time you wait at a traffic signal. And when the signal turns green, you have to turn the ignition on, listen to frantic honking because you haven’t moved immediately, change the gear from neutral to first if you are driving a manual-gear car, get frantically honked at again, put the hand-brake down, and finally get moving. Even for people who are highly cost-conscious or environmentally conscious, it’s too much effort.

That’s why campaigns are a money-draining and time-consuming way of attempting to change behaviour. In the UK, for example, in the 1970s and 1980s, the government spent millions on TV, radio and billboard ads educating people to wear seat belts. Researchers F.M. Streff and E.S. Geller estimated that by the end of the 1980s, 80-90% of British people had seen these ads eight-nine times each.

One would assume that showing people being launched head-first through their windscreens would make people respond. But it turned out that most people weren’t wearing seat belts. It was when the law changed in 1983, along with strict policing, that most people started wearing them.

Behavioural science suggests that a lot of the messaging on educating people to change behaviour seems powerful and emotional in the spur of the moment, but eventually doesn’t change behaviour because mere awareness rarely leads to action.

Changing behaviour is tough. People don’t always behave in the desired way. People should be exercising regularly, but many don’t. People shouldn’t be overeating, yet many do. The traditional way to change behaviour is to make people aware of the pros and cons of a particular act. But this method is ineffective, because most behaviour is instinctive i.e. subconscious. We aren’t always aware of the reasons for our actions. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to make someone aware of their behaviour, convince them that change is necessary and motivate them to change.

Behavioural science, on the other hand, uses subtle on-time nudges to enable the desired action. It focuses more on the ability to perform the desired action in the last mile than on motivating people. These nudges are based on a combination of behavioural economics, cognitive neuroscience and psychology. The nudges are designed to automate the desired action and for it to take place right at the moment of action.

For example, to reduce honking, we conducted an experiment in which a red button called Bleep was fitted on to the dashboard of the car. When the driver pressed the horn, the red button would begin to beep and flash. In order to switch it off, the driver needed to press the button.

The button made the driver conscious of the habit of honking by giving him immediate feedback in order to reduce indiscriminate honking. In a six-month experiment, Bleep reduced honking by 61% on average.

Similarly, a nudge was used in Copenhagen, with green footprints painted on the ground, pointing the way to the nearest garbage bin, that reduced littering by 46% by painting.

Meanwhile, to keep India clean, we first need dustbins that are easily accessible and cannot be stolen. They could be designed to include that extra bit of motivation for use—for instance, by having two sections and a question such as: “Who’s your favourite actress: Kangana or Deepika?”.

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

Clocky & Tocky - Alarm clocks that literally get you off your bed

Have trouble waking up in the morning? Do you hit snooze on the alarm repeated like me, only to go back to bed and wake up later to realize that you are, as usual, late?

Here are two interesting products of Behavioural Design that could be of help. Clocky and Tocky are products created by Gauri Nanda, an MIT grad. Clocky is an alarm clock with wheels. When it’s time to wake up, these alarm clocks leap off your nightstand and run away beeping to ensure you’re awake. Tocky even lets you load your own wake up message or your favourite song.

See them in action by clicking here.

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.

If you want something to happen, write it down

Hopefully by now you are beginning to appreciate how a seemingly small design intervention can make a huge difference in behaviour change. Here’s one more story that illustrates this point.

British psychologistsPaschal Sheeran and Sheina Orbell conducted an experiment in two of Scotland’s busiest orthopaedic hospitals. The participants were elderly patients from low and middle class households, who had undergone hip or knee replacement surgeries.

Recovering from a hip or knee surgery is incredibly arduous. While recovering the smallest movements can be excruciating. But it is essential that patients begin exercising almost as soon as they wake from surgery, even before the muscles and skin have healed, or the tissues will clog the joint, destroying its flexibility. But exercising is so painful that many patients skip out on rehab sessions, especially the elderly ones.

So the patients were each given a booklet after their surgeries that detailed their rehab schedule, and in the back were thirteen additional pages – one for each week – with instructions: My goals for this week are _________________? Write down exactly what you are going to do. For example, if you are going to walk this week, write down where and when you are going to walk.

Three months passed. The patients who had written exact plans in their booklets had started walking twice as fast as the ones who had not, as well as, getting in and out of their chairs, putting on their shoes, doing laundry, all of it much faster, than the ones who had not written anything in the booklet. Why did that happen?

The psychologists examined the booklets of those who had filled it and found it filled with specific detailed plans about the most mundane aspects of recovery. Like one patient wrote that he would walk to the bus stop on a particular day to meet his wife coming back from work at 3:30pm and the time he would leave, the route he would walk, what he would wear and which pills he would take if the pain became too much. Someone else who would exercise each time she would go to the bathroom, wrote that she would automatically take the first step right away after standing up from the couch, so that she wouldn’t be tempted to sit down again.

All focused on how they would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain. They built plans around inflection points when they knew their pain – and their temptation to quit – would be strongest.

Patients who didn’t write out any plans were at a significant disadvantage, because they never thought ahead about how to deal with pain. They didn’t deliberately design their habits. So their resolve abandoned them when they confronted the first few steps.

So if you want something to happen, write all the steps down.

Source: Paschal Sheeran and Sheina Orbell – Implementation intentions and repeated behaviour: augmenting the predictive validity of the theory of planned behaviour – European Journal of Social Psychology Volume 29, Issue 2-3, pages 349–369, March – May 1999

All's well that begins well

Any event that has a good ending is good even if some things went wrong along the way. That’s why ‘All’s well that ends well’. But ‘All’s well that begins well’ can be true too. Especially in the case of customer loyalty programs. Every retailer looks to increasing customer loyalty by offering incentive programs like frequent flyer programs or a club membership program. But amongst so many kind of programs which ones manage to perform better?

Behavioural researchers Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dreze conducted a research to find out. They handed loyalty cards to 300 customers of a local car wash. Every time the car was washed the loyalty card was stamped. There were two types of cards: one required 8 stamps to receive a free car wash and the other required 10 stamps, but 2 stamps were already affixed to the loyalty card. So both cards required 8 washes to get the free car wash.

After several months of the researched program, the researchers found only 19% of customers in the 8-stamp group made enough visits to claim their free wash compared to 34% of the 10-stamp, All’s-well-that-begins-well group. The latter group also took less time to complete their 8th wash, taking an average of 2.9 fewer days between car washes.

According to Nunes and Dreze, reframing the program as one that’s been started but not completed, rather than one that’s not yet begun, motivated people to complete it. Additional findings from research suggested that the closer people got to complete a goal, the more effort they exerted to achieve that goal. Data revealed that the amount of time between visits decreased by about half a day on average with every additional car wash that was purchased.

Now we know when to ask people for help on a project. One that’s already underway but incomplete, rather than one that has to start from scratch, is likely to be the project that gets help. So get started, help will be on its way.

Source: Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dreze: The endowed progress effort: How artificial advancement increases effort: Journal of consumer research 32: 504-12.

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