Shopping behaviour

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’.

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.

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.


if you are a retailer, you ought to know who is pregnant

Amongst big retail chains, it is common knowledge that people’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. Like getting married or moving into a new house or losing or changing a job. But life’s biggest event for most people is having a baby. And new parents’ habits are more flexible at that moment than any other time in an adult’s life. So for companies, pregnant women are gold mines.

I’m seeing a lot of my friends become new parents and they buy lots of stuff – diapers, wipes, cots, blankets, bottles, cribs, the list is endless. Retailers figure out that once sleep-deprived moms and dads start purchasing baby stuff, then they’ll also buy groceries, towels, underwears and whatever is easily available. To new parents, easy matters the most.

New parents are so valuable that companies like Walt Disney, P&G, Fisher-Price, etc in the US, have lots of giveaway programs aimed at new parents in hospitals itself. But for a retail chain like Target, approaching moms in maternity wards can be a bit too late. So Target began marketing to them before the baby arrives.

How did they do that? Target has a baby shower registry and that helps them identify some pregnant women. Target has analyzed shopping patterns of soon-to-be-mothers by looking at their due dates provided by them and linking the shopping done across pregnancy trimesters. Target figured that lots of people buy lotion, but women on the baby registry were buying unusually large quantities of unscented lotion in the beginning of their second trimester. In the first twenty weeks many pregnant women bought lots of vitamins. Lots of shoppers buy soap and cotton balls every month, but when someone buys lots of them, in addition to hand sanitizers and lots of washcloths, a few months after buying scent-free lotions and vitamins, it signals that they are getting closer to their delivery date. Whereas if someone bought a stroller, but nothing else, they probably bought it for a friend’s baby shower.

Target is one of the best retailers at predictive analytics. But they figured that they would need to use this information wisely. After all women can be upset if they received an offer making it obvious Target knew their reproductive status. So how do they get their coupons and offers into expectant mothers’ hands without making it appear they were spying on them?

Target sends specially designed mailers to customers, by mixing in all the ads for things pregnant women would never buy with offers meant for them, so that the baby ads look random. So there’s an ad for a lawnmower next to diapers. Wineglasses next to the offer on infant clothes. As long as the pregnant women thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. And that’s because she assumes that everyone else has also got the same mailer too.

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)

We all do as others do

This article of ours appeared in the editorial column of The Economic Times on 29th Dec, 2016

We did an interesting experiment in Mumbai some time back. We got 98 households across a few housing societies in Bandra and Khar to provide us with their electricity bills before the bills reached each member’s house. We then calculated the average bill amount in that particular society.

Let’s say the average was Rs 1,022. For all above-average users, we put a stamp stating that the average in that society is Rs 1,022. Next to their above average amount, we put a frownie indicating that they could do better.

The average number set the social norm and got the above average users to act like their neighbours and reduce their electricity consumption by 1.33 per cent. 1.33 per cent sounds small, but it can power 17,465 villages for one whole year. We called the experiment People Power because it gives people the power to make a difference at no cost.

Human behaviour is contagious. Our actions are often guided by how people around us are behaving. The information provided by the stamp let the above-average users know how much their neighbours were consuming.

That set the social norm and got them to reduce their power consumption. We do as others do. If people see other people littering, they litter too. If people see other people throwing waste in dustbins, they use dustbins too. If people see other people cheating, they cheat too. If people see other people being honest, they behave honestly too.

Behavioural science studies show that people dress in the same styles as their friends, pick dishes preferred by other diners, choose restaurants that are more crowded, are more likely to get fat if people around them become fat, are more likely to quit smoking if their friends quit, pay taxes if others are paying, vote if their spouse votes, and so on. A five-star review on Amazon leads to approximately 20 more books sold than one-star reviews.

This behavioural science principle of ‘social proof ‘ made a popular American infomercial for a home shopping channel change the all-toofamiliar call-to-action line at the end of the infomercial, “Operators are waiting, please call now” to “If operators are busy, please call again”. This simple change led to its sales skyrocketing.

On the face of it, the change seems foolhardy. After all, the message indicates that one may have to waste their time redialing till they reach a sales representative. Yet it worked so brilliantly.

Consider the kind of mental image that’s likely to get generated when you hear, ‘Operators are waiting, please call now’ — scores of bored phone representatives while they wait by their silent telephones — an image indicative of low demand and poor sales.

Consider how your perception of the popularity of the product would change when you hear, ‘If operators are busy, please call again’ — operators going from phone call to phone call without a break, right? That made people think: ‘If the phone lines are busy, then other people like me who are also watching this infomercial must be calling too.

Most people think they are different. But in reality most of us behave the way others do. So powerful is the effect of others on us that television executives love to fill comedy shows with canned laughter.

Experiments by lots of behavioural scientists have found that the use of canned laughter causes an audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented. People rate the material as funnier. In addition, evidence indicates that canned laughter is most effective for poor jokes.

In another experiment conducted by behavioural scientists Noah Goldstein, Robert Cialdini and Vladas Griskevicius (‘A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels’,, different kinds of signs were placed in hotel rooms. One of the signs asked guests to help save the environment by reusing their towels.

The second one informed them that the majority of guests at the hotel recycled their towels to help save the environment. The second sign had a success rate of 26 per cent more than the first sign.

A third sign informed guests that majority of people who had previously stayed in their particular room recycled their towels to help save the environment. The third sign had a success rate of 33 per cent more than the first sign.

Now only if hotels could apply the same principle to reducing theft of towels, shampoos, bedsheets, stationary and, yes, appliances too.

Sources: 1. 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 18:429-34 (2007) 2. Kelman, H. C. (1 March 1958). “Compliance, identification, and internalization three processes of attitude change”. Journal of Conflict Resolution 2 (1): 51–60.) 3. Cai, Hongbi, Yuyu Chen and Hanming Fang – Observational Learning: Evidence from a randomised natural field experiment – American Economic Review 99, no.3: 864-82 (2009) 4. Noah J. Goldstein, Robert B. Cialdini and Vladas Griskevicius – A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels – Journal of Consumer Research 35:472-82 (2008) 5. David W. Nickerson – Is voting contagious? Evidence from two field experiments – American Political Science Review 102: 49-57 (2008) 6. Nicholas A. Christakis and James Fowler – Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and How they shape our lives (2009) 7. Behavioural Insights Team – erstwhile cabinet office of British Government 8. Gary S. Becker – A note on restaurant pricing and other examples of social influence on price – Journal of Political Economy 99, no. 3: 1109-16 (1991) 9. Chevalier, Judith and Dina Mayzlin – The effect of word of mouth on sales: Online book reviews – Journal of Marketing Research 43, no.3: 345-54 (2006) 10. Gregory S. Berns et al – Neurobiological correlates of social conformity and independence during mental rotation – Biological Psychiatry 58: 245-53 (2005) 11. M. M. Smith and R. G. C. Fuller – Effects of group laughter on responses to humorous materials – Psychological Reports 30:132-34 (1972) 12. R. G. C. Fuller and A. Sheehy-Skeffinton – Effects of group laughter on responses to humorous materials: A replication and extension – Psychological Reports 35:531-34 (1974) 13. T. A. Nosanchuk and J. Lightstone – Canned laughter and public and private conformity – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29:153-56 (1974)

Why Behavioural Design is more effective than Advertising at changing behaviour

Advertising is useful for creating awareness of the the brand and making the brand likable through a story. However its too much to expect that viewers would choose that same brand or product when they are actually in ‘buy’ mode. Because today consumers are subjected to thousands of associations everyday and the human brain cannot be expected to revive the desired brand connection at point of purchase or consumption. Behavioural Design, on the other hand, works at this moment of truth and is far more effective at making people act in the desired way. Let us give you an example.

Suppose we wanted to encourage students to drink alcohol in limits and not go overboard. And say we chose advertising as a way to influence them to reduce their drinking. And say we even use the proven persuasive technique of using social norms – people are motivated to behave in line with perceived social norms. So we advertise that 85% of students drink 2 or lesser than 2 drinks when they party. The thinking is that when students know that their peers don’t drink much, it will reduce the amount that they’ll want to drink when they party. And we advertise via posters in colleges in prominent places so that the students would surely notice them.

Though the technique of social norm is persuasive, by the time the students get to the pubs, clubs, parties, wherever drinking occurs, they forget about that piece of persuasive messaging. The disparity between where the students see the persuasive message and where they are when they drink means that the distant voice of the message is likely to be drowned by the here-and-now sounds of cheers, fast music, laughter and an ambience created to shed inhibitions.

It’s unlikely that the same message would work if placed inside the pubs or clubs, especially if students see other students drinking more than 2 drinks. But what if the pubs put playful ‘light cubes’ in students’ drinks. Light cubes that are LED lights enclosed in plastic, emitting flashes of blue and white light, making the drink look like it were flashing the police car lights (blue, white and red in US). That could subliminally remind the students of the presence of cops around and restrict them from going overboard and getting into trouble. That’s why Behavioural Design is more powerful at changing behaviour.

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

How reframing choices changes our decision

(In the illustration did you first see a rabbit or a duck?)

Consider the following situation. Imagine that India is preparing for the outbreak of a disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative treatments to combat the disease have been proposed.

If Treatment A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.

If Treatment B is adopted, there is a 1/3rd probability that 600 people will be saved and a 2/3rd probability that no people will be saved.

Which one do you prefer?

Most likely you prefer the certain option – Treatment A over the gamble – Treatment B.

Now lets consider a second version of the situation:

If Treatment A’ is adopted, 400 people will die.

If Treatment B’ is adopted, there is a 1/3rd probability that nobody will die and a 2/3rd probability that 600 people will die.

Which one do you prefer?

Most likely you prefer the gamble – Treatment B over the certain option – Treatment A.

Now look closely and compare the two versions: the consequences of Treatment A and A’ are identical and so are the consequences of Treatment B and B’. However, your options most probably differed. Did you choose to save 200 lives for sure in the first version and chose to gamble rather than accept 400 deaths in the other?

Embarrassed? So were we. Even when this test was shared with public health professionals in the US, they were swayed by this framing effect!

Daniel Kahneman, nobel-winning behavioural economist, explains the rationale behind our decisions. In his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, he says “Decision makers tend to prefer the sure thing over the gamble, when the outcomes are good. They tend to reject the sure thing and accept the gamble, when both the outcomes are bad. Risk-averse and risk-seeking preferences are not reality-bound.”

This shows how a small manipulation can have drastic impact on decision-making. And if you still believe that we humans behave rationally, think again.

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