The Smart Water Bottle Experiment

Drinking water is essential to human health. The amount one should drink varies from person to person based on gender, age, height, weight, physical activity, sweat levels, metabolism level, body temperature, humidity levels, external temperature, altitude, quantity and quality of food intake, quantity and quality of other fluids’ intake and host of other details. When you don’t get enough water, every cell of your body is affected. You lose a lot of electrolytes, including sodium, potassium and chloride, which are essential to your body’s functions. Pretty much all of your cellular communications revolve around sodium and potassium, including muscle contractions and action potentials. Fatigue, lethargy, headaches, inability to focus, dizziness and lack of strength are all signs of dehydration. Nature has given us a powerful alert system – thirst. But in our busy chaotic lives we often ignore it and forget to drink water.



Behavioural Design vs awareness

There is enough information about why we should drink more water, yet most people feel they don’t drink enough. Education doesn’t change behaviour.

Behavioural change requires a different approach. Drinking water regularly is a good habit. Habits are essentially automatic in nature, where one does not consciously think about the action. In other words, habits are auto-pilot behaviours. For a behaviour to become a habit, it requires three things to come together – trigger, action and reward. When the loop gets completed, the habit sets into place. For example, over a period of time we have gotten used to waking up in the morning (trigger), brushing our teeth (action) and feeling fresh (reward). To create good habits, initially conscious effort is required. However, we humans are lazy, so the lesser the effort to get the habit started, the better. Eg. We forget to drink water during the day. So if there’s a trigger like a reminder from the water bottle, we’re likely to drink water. Over time the action of opening the water bottle because of the reminder can become auto-pilot i.e. become a habit. This approach led us to create a water bottle that glowed and beeped that gently nudged people to drink water 16% more.


The Experiment

We chose to do an experiment in an office of one of our corporate clients. The administration department of that company would keep filled-water-bottles on the desk of each employee every morning and refill it once every evening. So we bought the same type of water bottles for our experiment so as to not draw any suspicion amongst participants. And we created two versions of caps. In the first version of the cap, we fitted a chip which recorded the number of times the water bottle was opened. In the second version of the cap, we fitted a chip which recorded the number of times the water bottle was opened and in addition, the cap now glowed and beeped once after every two hours of the water bottle being opened. If the bottle wasn’t opened, then the cap would glow and beep after an hour. When the water bottle was opened, the cap would sense it and stop glowing. In both versions the chip was hidden inside the caps.

Creating prototypes of both versions of water bottle caps took longer and was costlier than we expected (planning fallacy). We could only produce a total of 70 water bottle caps over more than a year. Thirty-five pieces of each version – first version with recording chip without glow and beep and second version with recording chip with glow and beep. Because of being able to produce 70 water bottle caps we chose to randomly select thirty-five participants from the office employees who wished to participate in our experiment.

In week 1 we gave them our similar looking water bottles with the first version of the cap with recording chip hidden in it. In week 2 we replaced the caps with the second version of the cap with the recording chip with the glow and beep. We accounted for data from Monday morning to Friday night in both weeks. We then compared the data of how many times the water bottle was opened with the numbers of hours the employees had spent in office on each day of Week 1 (no glow and beep) and Week 2 (glow and beep). Had we been able to conduct the experiment amongst a larger set of sample, we would have chosen the typical control group and treatment group, but due to the above mentioned capacity, time and money constraints we did a before-and-after format for this experiment.


The Results

In week 2 employees opened the water bottles 16% more than in week 1. It means the employees were not sufficiently hydrated with regular water bottles even though they were kept on their desk right in front of their eyes. The simple Behavioural Design of glow and beep water bottle caps got employees to drink 16% more frequently than without the Behavioural Design nudge.


Frequently asked questions

Q. How much water does one need?

A. Scientific studies are inconclusive on the amount of water required by an adult. Some say its 3 litres. Some say 2.5 litres. Some (Mayo clinic) say for men its 3 litres and for women its 2.2 litres. But fact is that calculating how much water you need depends upon your gender, age, height, weight, physical activity, sweat levels, metabolism level, body temperature, humidity levels, temperature, altitude, quantity and quality of food intake, quantity and quality of other fluids intake and host of other reasons. It’s extremely difficult to calculate real time hydration levels accurately.

Q. Why didn’t we create a bottle that could calculate how much water each individual person needed?

A. To do that we’d need to know people’s gender, age, height, weight, physical activity, sweat levels, metabolism level, body temperature, humidity levels, temperature, altitude, quantity and quality of food intake, quantity and quality of other fluids intake and host of other details. It’s extremely difficult to calculate real time hydration levels accurately. Sensors and software that can capture all of the above seamlessly are very expensive as of date. Measuring only some of the inputs would lead to an inaccurate result that would be misleading. So we used a simple rule of thumb of drinking water every two hours to stay hydrated.

Q. What’s the best way to judge whether you are hydrated or dehydrated?

A. The most scientific and simplest way to judge whether you are hydrated or dehydrated is to look at the colour of your urine. If your urine is crystal clear it means you’re probably drinking too much water. If its light or mild yellow it means your drinking an adequate amount of water. If its proper yellow or darker it means you need to drink more water. If its brown you need to visit a doctor.



Mild Dehydration Affects Mood in Healthy Young Women – Lawrence E. Armstrong, Matthew S. Ganio, Douglas J. Casa, Elaine C. Lee, Brendon P. McDermott, Jennifer F. Klau, Liliana Jimenez, Laurent Le Bellego, Emmanuel Chevillotte and Harris R. Lieberman – The Journal of Nutrition – 21 December, 2011.

Mild dehydration impairs cognitive performance and mood of men – Matthew S. Ganioa, Lawrence E. Armstronga, Douglas J. Casaa, Brendon P. McDermotta, Elaine C. Lee, Linda M. Yamamotoa, Stefania Marzano, Rebecca M. Lopez, Liliana Jimenez, Laurent Le Bellego, Emmanuel Chevillotte and Harris R. Lieberman – British Journal of Nutrition – Volume 106 / Issue 10 / November 2011, pp 1535-1543

Lawrence E. Armstrong – an international expert on hydration who has conducted research in the field for more than 20 years (professor of physiology in UConn’s Department of Kinesiology in the Neag School of Education)

This article of ours first appeared in Mint on 12th Feb, 2018.

Imagine you have units of ABC mutual fund. You consider switching to XYZ mutual fund, but don’t. One year passes and you find that you would have made Rs1 lakh more if you had switched to XYZ mutual fund. How would you feel? Now imagine another scenario where you have units of ABC mutual fund, and during the year you switched to XYZ mutual fund. One year passes and you find that you would have made Rs1 lakh more had you kept ABC mutual fund. How would you feel? Which condition would make you feel worse?

Studies by Nobel-winning behavioural scientist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky have found that 92% of people find the second condition worse. The mistake of an action seems worse than a mistake from inaction. It generates more regret because the first condition is like an opportunity lost whereas the second condition is an actual loss. The second condition translates to seeing oneself as a loser, but not the first. The monetary loss is followed by a psychological loss from admitting you made a mistake. That’s why losses cause a lot of pain.

The region of the brain associated with evaluating negative emotions like pain and disgust is called ‘insula’. When people smell vomit or see a cockroach, the insula bursts into action. The insula also lights up when we lose money. In a study by M.P. Paulus et al, the insula was roughly three times as active after people lost money as it was after they won money. The more intensely the insula fired, the more likely the person was to pick a lower-risk option the next time.

Losing money on an investment is like smelling rotten food, it’s disgusting. We try to move away from it, wipe it off our memory and want to wash our hands off it. That explains why investors, including me, find it difficult to sell an investment when its price is down, since the notional loss will now get converted into actual loss. That makes most people like to believe that the price of the loser investment will go up one day and that’s when we’ll sell it. The thinking goes, ‘If we sell it now and it bounces back, we would have made two mistakes —one buying high and two selling low. If we hold on and it bounces back, we will feel much better.’ However, if we hold on and it doesn’t bounce back, it will be a bigger loss than had we sold it. Hanging on makes sense only if we believe that the investment has value and that value is more than the existing low price of the investment. However, that’s a tough decision which leaves most investors paralytic.

An analysis of 2 million transactions of Finnish investors by behavioural scientists Hersh Shefrin and Meir Statman, found that they are 32% less likely to sell a stock after a sharp fall in price. Professional money managers in Israel cling to their losing stocks for an average of 55 days—more than twice as long as they hold winners. A study by David Harless and Steven Peterson that looked at 97,000 trades, found that investors cashed in on 51% more of their gains than their losses, even they could have raised their average annual returns though by 3.4% points if they had held on to winners and dumped the losers. The study by Martin Weber and Colin Camerer found that among 450,000 trades in 8,000 accounts at a brokerage firm, 21.5% of clients never sold a single stock that had dropped in price. Researchers Zur Shapira and Itzhak Venezia found that new mutual fund managers sold 100% of the stocks ranked at the bottom, implying that their predecessors would have been paralyzed by their own mistakes that only a new person could clean the portfolio. Karl Case and Robert Shiller find that people trying to sell their house hold out longer when they are facing a loss, and will often take the house off the market and not sell, rather than lose money on it.

Dealing with losses is painful, but thinking about the loss differently could help. One behavioural design solution could be to find another investment that you would like to put money into. Think of the proceeds as funding the new investment by selling the loser investment. It will help you generate cash for buying the new investment and you can write off the loss to offset your capital gains and reduce your taxable income. Moreover, the learning of what went wrong should be undertaken by introspecting why the loser investment was originally bought and why its value had changed over time. If the investment still has value and potential, then holding on would make sense. If not, the faster you can sell, the lesser will be your loss.

Employee performance and happiness talk (Gartner)

Our latest talk was on applying behavioural science for improving employee performance and happiness at the Gartner Symposium ITXPO, Goa for India’s Top 300 CIOs.

Behavioural science experiments on employee performance and happiness show that businesses often operate in ways that are not aligned to principles of human psychology, leading to engagement and motivation levels that are disappointing.

For example, when performance appraisals are done annually, employees are also given feedback on improvement and learning. But behavioural science shows that the focus of employees at that stage is on earning, while learning shuts down. Companies can benefit to a great extent if the ‘scope of improvement’ conversation is done as a separate exercise at a separate time than the performance review and appraisal.

The talk covered behavioural science findings on rewards, recognition, incentives – monetary, non-monetary, experiential; performance appraisal, feedback, teams, collaboration, workplace design, change management, productivity, culture and core values.

Like we always do, the talk focussed on simple but innovative and practical Behavioural Design nudges that could make a big difference in employee performance and happiness.


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.

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


Emotions hugely affect decision-making

We’ve all experienced how we like to shop when we’re feeling down. While that says a lot about our buying behaviour, we never imagined that emotions played a huge role in our selling behaviour as well. This phenomenon is explained by an interesting study below.

Behavioural scientist Jennifer Lerner and her colleagues induced either sadness or no emotion in participants by having them view different film clips. Those assigned to the sadness-inducing condition watched a movie clip from The Champ, which featured the death of a boy’s mentor; following that, they were asked to write a brief paragraph about how they’d feel if they’d been in the situation themselves. Those in the no-emotion condition watched an emotionally neutral film clip featuring fish and then wrote about their day-to-day activities. Afterward, half the participants were asked to set a price to sell some highlighters and the other half were asked to set a price to buy the same highlighters.

Turned out that sad buyers were willing to purchase the item for around 30% more than emotionally neutral buyers. Here’s the interesting part. Sad sellers were willing to part with the item for around 33% less than emotionally neutral sellers! Researchers also found that the participants had no idea that they had been so deeply affected by the residual feelings of sadness.

Behavioural scientists Christopher Hsee and Yuval Rottenstrich argue further that in emotionally charged situations we become less sensitive to the magnitude of numbers – we are more likely to pay attention to the simple presence or absence of an event. We get persuaded by offers when we shouldn’t be. Like when we’re got our eyes set on a new beauty (car) and if the difference between the price of the car and what we’re willing to pay for it is say Rs. 3 lakh – a good salesperson will manage to persuade us by throwing in one or two additional items free like a mirror lock or steering lock, whose value is realistically nowhere near Rs. 3 lakhs.

Lesson for negotiations, buying and selling decisions – examine how you feel and put off the decision until you’re feeling emotionally neutral.

Source: Lerner, A. Small and G. Lowenstein – Heart strings and purse strings: carryover effects of emotions on economic decisions – Psychological Science, 15:337-41 (2004)

How the world's best marketer got it wrong, but eventually got it right

The world’s best marketer – P&G launched a brand called Febreze in the US in 1996 as a spray that could remove bad smells from almost any fabric. The spray had been created when one of the P&G scientists was working with a substance called hydroxypropyl beta cyclodextrin (HPBCD). Apparently he was a smoker and one day when he got back from work his wife asked, “Did you quit smoking?” “No”, he said looking suspiciously. “You don’t smell like smoke”, she said.

P&G sensing a big opportunity spent millions perfecting the formula, producing colorless, odorless liquid that could make any stinky couch or jacket scentless. The marketing team decided that they should position Febreze as something that would allow people to rid themselves of embarrassing smells. They created two television commercials. The first showed a woman talking about how her jacket smell of cigarettes when she eats in the smoking section of a restaurant and the other, had a woman speak about her furniture smelling like her dog. In both cases Febreze eliminated the bad smells.

Febreze bombed.

P&G hired behavioural experts to help them figure out the problem and the new solution. When they visited a woman’s home, they observed that though her house was clean and organized, it stinked of her nine cats. The smell was overpowering but the woman couldn’t notice any smell. They figured that even the strongest scent fades with constant exposure. People who needed Febreze the most simply couldn’t detect bad smells in the first place!

They met hundreds of consumers looking for clues how to make Febreze a regular part of their lives. One day they met a woman, who used Febreze everyday. She used to spray Febreze whenever she would finish cleaning a room. Like in the bedroom, she vacuumed, made the bed, plumped the pillows, tightened the bed sheet’s corners, smiled with a sense of accomplishment and then took a Febreze bottle and sprayed it as a final touch. They saw the same pattern across thousands of hours of videotapes of people cleaning their homes.

That was it. The team decided to make Febreze a fun part of cleaning, at the end of the cleaning routine. They added more perfume, so that instead of merely neutralizing odors, Febreze had its own distinct smell. Febreze was repositioned as the nice smell that occurs at the end of the cleaning routine. Instead of eliminating scents, it became an air freshener, used as the finishing touch.  Febreze was relaunched in 1998. Housewives started craving the Febreze scent and the desire to make everything smell as nice as it looked. Within two months sales doubled. Now Febreze sales are more than $1 billion per year and products include candles, laundry detergents, kitchen spays, etc. P&G learned the lesson – no one craves scentlessness.

Source: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Hear the full story from Charles Duhigg here.

Mirroring others behaviour can get you likes

Often during a meeting or a negotiation we subconsciously mirror our colleagues’ or negotiators’ posture. The typical response is to change our posture, as if there were something wrong with being influenced by the other. However the following research suggests the exact opposite: Mirroring behaviour results in better outcomes for both.

Researcher William Maddux and colleagues conducted an experiment wherein MBA students were instructed to subtly mirror their partner during negotiation (e.g. lean back if the other person does) or not asked to mirror their partner. When one party was instructed to mirror the other, the two parties reached a deal 67% of the time. When they weren’t told to mirror the other, the parties reached a deal only 12.5% of the time.

Based on additional data from the research, they concluded that mirroring behaviour led to increased trust, and that increased trust typically led one negotiator to feel comfortable disclosing details that were ultimately necessary to break a stalemate and create a win-win situation for both parties.

Another research by Rick van Baaren and colleagues found that waiters at a restaurant increased their tip size by nearly 70% simply by matching their customers’ verbalizations, repeating back word for word the customer’s order, as opposed to saying “okay” or merely nodding.

Social psychologists Tanya Chartrand and John Barg say that matching behaviour of others creates feelings of liking and strengthens bonds between two people. It makes us say “yes” and do nice things for people we like.

At the same time, you don’t want your interaction to come across as mocking the other person. So the key is subtlety.

Sources: William Maddux, Elizabeth Mullen and Adam Galinsky – Chameleons bake bigger pies and take bigger pieces: Strategic behavioral mimicry facilitates negotiations outcomes – Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44, no. 2: 461-68 (March 2008)

Rick van Baaren, Rob Holland, Brejge Steenart, Ad van Knippenberg – Mimicry for money: Behavioral consequences of Imitation – Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 39, no. 4:393-98 (July 2003)

Tanya Chatrand and John Bargh – The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, no. 6: 893-910 (June 1999)

Haath laga ke dekh

Hello from New York. We’re here to attend MakerCon and MakerFaire and meet interesting people like authors, professors, makers, inventors, innovators, chip designers, product designers, design thinkers and of course behavioural scientists. More on that later.

Continuing with the blogpost, translated in English ‘Haath laga ke dekh’ means ‘Try touching me’, used here in a challenging tone and manner. You’ll hear a lot of it at crowded places like railway stations, bus stops, inside trains and buses where people jostle for space and there’s an invariable brushing of elbows and shoulders. Leading to mock fights of the ‘Hungama’ Bollywood movie-type, where men challenge one another saying ‘Haath laga ke dekh’.

But in this post we’ll be focusing on the positive aspect of touching. How and why touching can sub-consciously lead to positive outcomes. By touching we mean, a gentle brief touch to the forearm, for example, not the touchy-feely kinds.

In the study ‘The Effect of Touch on Women’s Behaviour’ by N. Gueguen, French men randomly approached 240 young women by saying, “Hello. My name is Antoine. I just want to say that I think you’re really pretty – I need to go to work now – but if you’d give me your number – I’ll call you later – and we could have a drink together someplace.” If the women refused, they’d say, “Its not my day. Have a good evening.” If they got her number, they’d tell her it was just a study, and the women would laugh. With half the women, the young men added a light one-second touch to the woman’s forearm. The other half were not touched. I know what you are thinking – what would happen if it were India? But stay with me on this one. I’ll give you other examples to illustrate the point too.

Outcome: When the young men didn’t touch, their success rate was 10% and when they touched, it was 20%. Why did it happen? Women didn’t think like Antoine is such a good toucher. It happened because on a sub-conscious level, touch imparts a subliminal sense of caring and connection. Social neuroscientist pioneer Ralph Adolphs says that nerve fibers especially in the face and arm are directly connected to areas of the brain such as the insular cortex, which is associated with emotion.

Subtle touching, like briefly on the arm, has provided a positive outcome in many researches and experiments – from increasing tips for servers in restaurants and bars, to the servers suggestion to order a particular dish being accepted more often, to the increase in percentage of shoppers in a supermarket purchasing the food they sampled, to the proportion of shoppers in a mall willing to answer a survey, to a 2010 study of Basketball in Berkeley that found that the number of high fives, chest bumps, hugs, etc. correlated significantly with the degree of cooperation among teammates and wins.

Haath laga ke dekh. Try touching, this time used in a persuasive manner 🙂

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