Public behaviour

Use a calculator, not your heart, to assess risk

This article of ours first appeared in Mint on 6th Dec, 2017.

It has taken millions of years for humans to evolve into the species we are today. But it’s been only a few decades of living with rapid technological and economic development. We have lived among and survived snakes, spiders and other species that could have led to our extinction. That’s probably why our brain has developed parts like the amygdala, which acts as an alarm system, generating fast emotions like fear when we notice anything that’s out of place or scary. The amygdala that induces the fear reflex has helped our ancestors survive and it continues to remain a vital tool in today’s daily life. When we see a face that’s scared, we take cues and act instantly; or, if we smell smoke, the amygdala floods the body with fear signals even before we are consciously aware of being afraid.

However, today, life has been changed dramatically due to money and technology. A potential economic threat makes us panic. When our investments take a sudden drop, we react and sell our investments; making ourselves poorer, not richer. But we feel more comfortable to invest when markets are rising. We do the opposite of what common sense shows us—we need to buy low and sell high to make a profit, but we buy high and sell low. In other circumstances, people avoid investing in the stock markets because they are afraid that the stock market might crash, but have no idea how rising prices eat up their savings and cause a loss of money. We are not good at assessing risk—monetary and non-monetary.

The more vivid and imaginable a risk is, the scarier it feels. Behavioural scientist, Paul Slovic, says people will pay twice as much for an insurance policy that covers hospitalization for ‘any disease’ than one that covers hospitalization for ‘any reason’. Any reason covers any disease, but ‘any reason’ seems vague, while ‘any disease’ is vivid. The vividness fills us with fear. It’s not logical. Decades of behavioural science is proving than we don’t always make rational decisions. On the contrary, we often make decisions based on emotion and therefore the decisions sometimes tend to be not rational. For example, people are scared of flying because a plane crash is vivid. Tons of people, including myself, buy air travel insurance, but if we take probability of a plane crash into account, we will find the air travel insurance not worthwhile. At the same time, driving a car without wearing a seat belt feels perfectly safe for a lot of people in India. Let’s see what the numbers have to say. Last year, no one died in India due to a plane crash compared to more than 1,50,000 people who died in road accidents in 2016. So what’s safer—flying by plane or driving on roads? Here’s another example: terrorism. Terrorism creates images of violence, gun shots, bombs, bloodshed. We feel that the risk of terrorism is uncontrollable. But did you know that only 178 civilians died due to terrorism in India this year. On the other hand, smoking kills 1 million people every year in India. Yet we feel more scared of terrorists than cigarettes. But smokers feel they are in charge and understand the consequences, that’s why the risks seem lower than they truly are.

Says Nobel-winning behavioural scientist, Daniel Kahneman, “We tend to judge the probability of an event by the ease with which we can call it to our mind. The more recently an event has occurred, or the more vivid our memory of something like it in the past, the more available an event will be in our minds and the more probable it will seem to happen again.” Clearly that’s not the right way to assess risk because the event does not become more probable just because it occurred recently. In fact, the best time to ‘value invest’ is when the markets are depressed. That’s likely to be a time when there is more bad news than good news, when corporate performances don’t look that good and when analysts don’t have nice things to say. In other words: when markets are low. However, people judge such times to be risky and stay away from stock markets, and when the markets are rising, people hear positive news all around and most investors find comfort in positive statements made by analysts. Due to this positivity and euphoria, people invest at high levels only to find that the trend doesn’t hold true for long.

Understanding risk is critical to managing money. So when you think about risk, it’s better to use a calculator instead of your heart.


How a teacher changed lives of school kids

Her name is Molly Howard, a teacher who taught at a school in Georgia, US, where 80% of the kids lived in poverty and only 15% of the kids went on to study in colleges. Many teachers had a defeatist attitude – some children can and some children can’t.

But Molly challenged that view. Once she joined she abolished the school’s two-track system that separated the college bound students from the vocational students. She beefed up assessments and tutorial programs. She matched students with teachers who would be their on-campus advisors. But the biggest impact came from how she graded the students – A, B, C and Not Yet. No D-F.

In her view the students had accepted a culture of failure. These students didn’t used to do their homework or turned in shoddy work. They behaved as though they were complete failures. Getting a D or F seemed to be an easy way out for not trying enough.

In her new system of ‘Not Yet’ if the students did substandard work the teachers were made to say ‘Not Yet’. The students said to themselves, “My teacher thinks I could do better.”

Molly Howard had transformed her students with a simple Behavioural Design nudge. Test scores went up. The graduation rate increased dramatically. Howard was given the U.S. Principal of the year award in 2008.

Let’s not give up on North Korea, not yet.

To overcome big problems, think small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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


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