Why we need a label for 'Climate Change'

This article of ours first appeared in Huffington Post on 17th July, 2017.

Nineteen of the G20 countries have affirmed their commitment to the Paris climate agreement, which sets guidelines for each participating country to mitigate global warming. Sponsored by the United Nations, it aims to slow the rise in global temperatures. The US is the lone outlier on climate change while India remains committed on the issue of climate change “as per its own values and requirements.”

On the face of it, climate change seems like a problem that may be happening but is still some time away in the future. So perhaps it can be handled sometime in the future. After all there are so many urgent problems facing our country—poverty, malnutrition, black money, terrorism, lack of infrastructure, etc. Plus, there is this diffused sense of responsibility because it’s affecting almost every country in the world. So the question arises, why should India take the lead to tackle climate change? After all it’s the developed countries that are responsible for much of the industrialisation that’s causing global warming and climate change. But what really matters is which countries are facing and will continue to face the maximum harm from climate change. And India is right on top of that list according to research by the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative. The group measures vulnerability by considering the potential impact of climate change on six areas: food, water, health, ecosystem service, human habitat and infrastructure.

Climate change is a wicked problem. As this New Scientist article points out:

“It provides us with no defining qualities that would give it a clear identity: no deadlines, no geographic location, no single cause or solution and, critically, no obvious enemy. Our brains scan it for the usual cues that we use to process and evaluate information about the world, but find none. And so we impose our own.

It is wide open for interpretation causing constant uncertainty. Climate scientists say people don’t get the science about the environment. Environmentalists say political will is being corrupted by vested commercial interests. Commercial interests deny climate change. Individual minds are left confused.

But not only do vested economic interests inhibit reforms, our individual brains are not geared to deal with the problem. Climate change is global, complex, somewhat abstract problem, and occurs in a time frame of decades, all of which make it difficult for people to respond appropriately. Costs are short term, benefits are long term and perceived as uncertain, though in fact benefits are massively greater than the costs of action now. Take survival, for instance. But people suffer from loss aversion—the tendency to fear losses more than we love gains. So it’s challenging for us to give up our aspirations to consume and enjoy the pleasures of consumption now, in order to reap the benefits of reversing climate change.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, US Department of Commerce, January 2017’s average global temperature was the third highest for January in the 1880-2017 record, behind 2016 (highest) and 2007 (second highest). The extent of polar sea ice on 4 December, 2016 was about 3.84 million square kilometers (1.48 million square miles) below the 1981-2010 average, according to U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center satellite measurements. That’s roughly the size of India melted away because of rising global temperatures. The increase in temperature, heatwaves, storms, floods and disruption of weather patterns is being felt by everyone, but it’s still somehow not enough to get everyone to take the necessary desired action. Why?

To begin with, climate change is a soft term, moderate and fuzzy. It could do with re-labeling as “climate disaster”. Climate disaster creates a stronger sense of threat and generates a greater sense of urgency. It brings up vivid images to the mind of typical disasters—storms, floods, wildfires, droughts, etc. So people are more likely see it as harming them and their family, and more likely to see it happening now. Several behavioural science studies have shown evidence that when words are re-labeled it makes a huge difference in people’s behaviour. Imagine 3G, 4G and wifi being reworded as “radiation”.

However, education on “climate disaster” is not enough. It needs to be made more tangible for everyone to act upon it. We need to create behavioural design nudges in our everyday lives that enable everyone to effectively contribute in reducing climate disaster in a tangible, concrete way. For example, just like the Bureau of Energy Efficiency has created an energy saving star rating system for household appliances like air conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines, we need to have an encompassing “climate disaster” star rating system for each and every product and service we consume. Fewer the stars, more the damage caused to the planet. Higher the stars, the better it is for the planet. For example, amongst food items, chicken would get a higher star rating than beef because cows let out methane as they digest food, a potent greenhouse gas, 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. And beef requires 28 times more land to produce than chicken and 11 times more water. Vegetarian plant-based food would get the highest star rating in comparison. The “climate disaster” star rating system will, in turn, nudge manufacturers to ensure their products and services have a high star rating. That means relying on renewable sources of energy, efficient use of resources, efficient emissions and better waste management. Sure it can be complicated to work out such a rating for all products and services, but if done, we could have a shot at surviving ‘climate disaster’.

What to do when people don't see the need to change

A lot of times people don’t see the need to change. Even if they intellectually understand that change is required, rarely does it materialize. We mean haven’t you ever faced a situation where you have made a powerful case via a powerpoint presentation filled with charts and graphs and inspiring quotes, and everyone in the room understood exactly what you meant and even noded their heads with enthusiasm, but nothing really happened after that? No? Then you must be so damn good looking! For the rest of us, things needn’t be this hard. There can be a better way as described by the following two examples.

Jon Stegner worked for a large manufacturing company and figured there was an opportunity to cut purchasing costs that would result in savings of $1 billion over five years. But to reap these savings, a big process shift would be required and for that to happen the bosses would need to believe in the opportunity and for the most part, they didn’t.

Let’s face it, if you were in his place the natural and most likely thing you would have done is make a presentation with all the savings data, the cost-cutting protocols, a recommendation for supplier consolidation and the logic for central purchasing.

But instead, Stegner hired a summer intern and asked him to identify all the types of gloves used in all the company’s factories and find out what the company was paying for it. They found that the factories were purchasing 424 kinds of gloves, using different suppliers, and all were negotiating their own prices. The same pair of gloves that cost $5 at one factory cost $17 at another.

Stegner piled and tagged each of the 424 kinds of gloves and invited all division presidents to visit the Glove Shrine. The presidents were like, “We really buy all these different kinds of gloves?” “This is crazy” “We’re crazy”. “We’ve got to fix this”. The company changed its purchasing process and saved a lot of money. (Source: The Heart of Change by John Kotter and Dan Cohen)

Another example is of Robyn Waters who worked at Target as a Trend Manager at a time when Target was a ‘discounter’ and was lagging the trends and not starting them. That was Robyn Waters’s mandate. But the merchandizers in various departments were traditionally copycats.

For a time in retail, trendy clothing was neutral in color. Everything was gray, white, khaki, tan or black. Then, one season color exploded in the retailers in London and Paris. So Waters needed to get her merchants excited about color. But Target had an analytical, numbers driven culture and the merchants would review the past few year’s sales and see that the color hadn’t sold.

So she poured a bag full of bright colored M&Ms on the glass table creating cascades of turquoise and hot pink and lime green. Merchants went “Wow” and she’d say, “See, look at your reaction to color”. (Source: Interview of Robyn Waters by Chip Heath)

In both cases, the change agent was a single employee with not much resource. Both created the change by dramatizing the need for change in a tangible way.

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)

Consumer and Employee behaviour (Bajaj Finance)

Last week we spoke at Bajaj Finance on applying behavioural science to improve sales conversions, new product adoption, product portfolio, choice architecture, pricing strategies, employee behaviour change, productivity, performance management systems, learning and team collaboration.

One of the questions asked during the Q&A was what’s the difference between data science and behavioural science and what’s the role of both in business. We answered the question with the example of Uber. To make sure you can hire an Uber within couple of minutes of booking one and to make sure the cab arrives at the exact location around the time promised, Uber must be applying incredible amount of data science – matching user’s data with driver’s data and of course so much more we don’t understand as behavioural scientists. When Uber would use surge-pricing too, they would apply data science to incentivise drivers to reduce customer’s waiting time. But it didn’t go down well with anyone. So Uber changed its tactic from surge-pricing (1.8x) to upfront-pricing (Rs. 167). With upfront-pricing customers no longer feel its unfair because they are informed about the exact fare at the time of booking prior to the trip, which is a certain fixed amount and that puts customers at ease, even though in peak times Uber indicates that fares are higher due to higher demand. On the other hand, surge-pricing (1.8x) pinched people a lot more. But now with upfront-pricing, Uber is still able to charge a surcharge, but without pinching people as much, thereby improving customer experience. Uber’s upfront-pricing is an example of Behavioural Design.

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.

Comedian Cyrus Broacha interviews us on funny behaviours and Behavioural Design.

Cyrus’s nonsense makes a lot of sense.

Super witty and sharp Cyrus knows more about Behavioural Design than anyone who has interviewed us.

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 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.

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


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


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