First ever TEDx – Q&A for VJTI

First ever TEDx talk Q&A for VJTI

We were invited for the first ever TEDx – Q&A session for VJTI engineering students and makers, on 17th September 2014 at the VJTI campus (VJTI is one of the premier engineering institutes of India having received funding from The World Bank). A big thanks to TEDxGateway’s campus connect initiative. What an awesome time we had answering questions from curious minds at VJTI about Bleep, its future, human behaviour, behaviour change, Behavioural Design and the role of technology in Behavioural Design.

Students of VJTI were shown our TEDxGateway talk on Bleep and Behavioural Design immediately followed by a Q&A session that seemed like it would have lasted hours because the questions just wouldn’t stop from the enthusiastic crowd. But of course we had to have a maximum time limit of an hour. Here are highlights of the Q&A session.

Questions naturally began about Bleep and its future. We explained to students that Bleep being a product that solved a social issue and not an individual problem, is the responsibility of the Government of India. Which is why we aren’t selling Bleep to individual customers who we believe will hardly form any numbers. Plus Bleep won’t help car manufacturers sell more cars so they won’t install it voluntarily either. After some question and answers most seemed to accept our answer but some still seemed optimistic that Bleep could be sold to individuals. May be it was their optimism bias. May be one day we’ll be proved wrong.

Students asked whether Bleep could prove to be distracting and cause accidents in emergencies. We informed them that we had tested Bleep for over 3800 km and no accidents had occurred. We also told them that according to Jeff Muttart’s study (a traffic-accident reconstructionist) in emergencies people don’t use the horn and therefore Bleep will not go off and distract them further. Jeff Muttart has pored over hundreds of surveillance videos of real-life car crashes and near-crashes. His study shows that emergency horn use is not associated with decreased accident involvement. He found that drivers never steered and honked at the same time, and usually they didn’t honk at all. About half of emergency honks were meant to chastise and came only after the danger was over. The other half were just preludes to a crash. “It really didn’t serve any purpose at all. It was just, Hey, by the way, I’m going to hit you.”

(Muttart, J., “Factors that Influence Drivers’ Response Choice Decisions in Video Recorded Crashes,” SAE Technical Paper 2005-01-0426, 2005, doi:10.4271/2005-01-0426)

Someone asked “But what will happen to people’s honking behaviour once Bleep is removed from the car?” We told them that we haven’t done the post study, but we jokingly said, “First let Bleep come into our cars. Then we’ll see what happens if its not there anymore.”

The most interesting part of the session was the discussion about Behavioural Design and behaviour change. We sensed that the students found it to be a new, unique and intriguing concept. We spoke about irrational behaviour, difference in attitudes and behaviour, why we cannot solely rely on will power for behaviour change, why most educational campaigns don’t work, how we create false memories, why we use Behavioural Design and not work towards increasing people’s self-awareness and how collaboration between engineers and designers can design new products that facilitate behaviour change.

One of the curious students having read about People Power (click on the link to read about it) before attending the session, asked us to speak about the experiment. So we obliged and told them about how human behaviour is contagious. Like right there in the auditorium once the first student raised his hand to ask a question, seeing him one by one the others followed. Soon we were asked if we had solutions for littering, spitting, eve teasing, not talking on the mobile while driving and so on. May be one day we may.

Meanwhile we told them that we had a solution for another behaviour change. We spontaneously made an offer to VJTI students and makers that we’d be happy to hire a person who could help us create a product on a project that could potentially change an aspect of our behaviour. If you are an electronic engineer, maker and are interested to change human behaviour, email us with your work at

People Power – Our second behaviour change experiment

People Power - Our second behaviour change experiment

Power Crisis in India

India currently suffers from a major shortage of electricity generation capacity, though it is the world’s fourth largest energy consumer after United States, China and Russia*. A 2012 report by the IEA estimated that nearly 25 percent of the population lacks basic access to electricity, while electrified areas suffer from rolling electricity blackouts.

McKinsey reports that the residential consumption will grow at 14% over the next 10 years, requiring India to generate power five to ten fold compared to what was generated in the last 10 years, putting a huge strain on power generation in India.

While increasing power generation faces many issues, one way we can reduce the power gap is through conservation.


Ineffective education-based campaigns

Many educational energy conservation campaigns and messaging like ‘Keep your AC at 24°C’, ‘Switch off appliances when not in use’, ‘Save electricity, Save money’ or ‘Be a good citizen’ or ‘Save the planet’ are being tried by different organizations and people across India, but none have proved to be successful at getting people’s to reduce their electricity consumption. Educational campaigns often don’t lead to action because they rely on an outside entity that warns you of the dire consequences of your behavior or tells you what is the ideal way of behaving.  And that often makes people defensive, because we never see ourselves as the ‘bad’ people who waste electricity. Moreover several scientific studies have proven that we humans are often not aware of our own behaviour. Its like we know that we should not overeat, but we do so quite often.


The 6-month long experiment

So instead of relying on traditional thinking, we implemented a study (with modifications) done in California by Schultz and colleagues. We conducted our 6 month long experiment amongst 98 households across posh residential societies in Bandra-Khar, Mumbai, India. Permission of the Secretary of each residential society was taken to conduct the experiment. We collected the households’ electricity bills before they reached each member’s house. We then calculated the average bill amount in that particular society. Lets say the average was 1022 rupees. For all above average users, we put a stamp stating that the average in that society is 1022 rupees. Next to their above average amount, we put a frownie indicating that they could do better. The bills that were below average were delivered without any intervention. The households were not informed about this experiment.


The results of the experiment

The units consumed by the household in the month was taken as the measurement of electricity consumption. And reduction in electricity consumption was a measure of units consumed in the month compared to units consumed in the same month last year.

Over a period of 6 months, the average reduction in unit consumption by above-average users was 1.33% compared to an average increase of 6.02% in unit consumption by non-stamped users.

1.33% reduction on a national scale can power 17,465 villages for one year.

Over this period of 6 months, we found an average of 50% of above-average users (stamp intervention group) reducing their electricity consumption, compared to an average of only 39% of non-stamped users (no intervention group) reducing their electricity consumption. The base rate for above-average users was lower before the experiment began.


The behavioural science behind the effectiveness of People Power

Human behaviour is contagious. We often look at how others around us are behaving and act accordingly. We go along with the crowd to avoid social exclusion. Though we may not be aware of the degree to which we’re socially influenced.

In fact we people don’t see ourselves as easily influenced by those around us. If we were to ask people what would make them change, we suppose they will rank “what others are doing” last. But when we tested what really works, following the herd has proven to be very persuasive.

In the experiment, we didn’t tell anybody what to do. We just told them what people like them were doing.

And when we check out the typical electricity bill, we see that it’s a disaster of line items. So we contextualized information in a way that was motivating for people to conserve power. The information provided by the stamp let the above average users know how much their neighbors were consuming. That set the social norm and got them to reduce their power consumption.

People Power – A simple intervention that gives people the power to make a big difference at no cost.

People Power has got featured in Fast CompanyThe Times of IndiaDNA and has 1,50,000+ views on The Logical Indian.



People Power is based on the study by 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

*EIA – U.S. Energy Information Administration Report updated March 18, 2013; Wall Street Journal 2 Jan 2012 and McKinsey’s report, ‘Powering India – The road to 2017’

Calculation of 1.33% on a national scale can power 17,465 villages – [Total energy (in GWh) consumed in India = 852903 (as per Govt. of India, CEA, July 2013). 1 Gwh = 10,00,000 kwh.Total energy (in kWh) consumed in India = 852903000000. Per capita consumption of energy (in kWh) in rural India (y) = 100 (Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Govt. of India 2012 and World Energy Outlook 2011, IEA). 1.33% of Total energy (in kWh) consumed in India (x) = 11343609900. Total rural population that can be served with 1.33% of energy savings (x/y) = 113436099. Divide the result by 5 and we get number of rural households = 22687219. According to the 2011 census of India, 68.84% of Indians, around 833.1 million people live in 640,867 different villages. So average population per village comes to 1299. Divide the above result (22687219) by 1299, we get number of villages = 17,465.]

Bonus: Check out one of the most famous experiments in studying conformity under group pressure – the Solomon Ash experiment here.

The science behind Facebook’s experiment

Priming influences us subconsciously

Read about Facebook’s experiment? The one in which they manipulated which posts showed up on the news feeds of 6,89,003 Facebook users. For one week, some users saw fewer posts with negative emotional words than usual, while others saw fewer posts with positive ones. People were more likely to use positive words in Facebook posts if they had been exposed to fewer negative posts throughout the week, and vice versa. Read about it here.

Love it or hate it, here’s the science behind the experiment.

Our behaviour is often influenced by sub-conscious cues. Priming shows that people’s behaviour may be altered if they are first exposed to certain sights, words or sensations. In other words, people behave differently if they have been ‘primed’ by certain cues beforehand. Priming seems to act outside of conscious awareness, which means it is different from simply remembering things.

Here are few other fascinating priming-related researches. Social psychologist John Bargh et al got participants in the first group to unscramble five words like ‘he it hides finds instantly’. For this group the random words were just to keep them busy, but for the second group, the sentences had lots of words, which were stereotypically associated with old people – old, lonely, grey, careful, wise, stubborn, courteous, etc. Then the two groups of people were made to walk a 9.75-metre strip. Those who’d been fed old-related words took a full second longer to cover the distance, than those who hadn’t.

Those primed were reminded about the idea of being old. Because we have habitual ways of thinking about old people – this idea got activated subconsciously and they acted in line with these stereotypes without even realizing it.

But we can improve people’s performance by just the same method. In another research, Asian-American participants were invited to take a test. Before they did, some were primed with the words that would activate stereotypes about Asian people, namely superiority at maths. This was done by flashing words on a screen for less than a tenth of a second: too quick to be perceived consciously, but slow enough for the subconscious to register.

Asian-Americans who had been primed with the stereotype got almost twice as many of the questions right as the other group. When researchers saw the data closely they found that after bring subliminally primed with an Asian-American stereotype, Asian-Americans attempted more questions. As if the stereotype made them try harder – a habit of persistence.

In another research asking participants to make a sentence out of scrambled words such as fit, lean, active, athletic made them significantly more likely to use the stairs, instead of lifts.

Says Jeremy Dean of, “Everyday we are bombarded with subtle and not so subtle cues of how to behave. We process these automatically and subconsciously, and over time these impulses emerge as our habits, which we start performing without conscious thought.”

Feel like sipping some cocktail by the beach?


Sources: John Barg, M. Chen, L. Burrows – Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation action – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71, no. 2 (1996): 230

M. Shih, N. Ambady, J.A. Richeson, K. Fujita, H.M. Gray – Stereotype performance boosts: the impact of self-relevance and the manner of stereotype activation – Journal of Personality and Social Pyschology 83, no.3 (2002): 638

Wryobeck and Chen (2003) Using priming techniques to facilitate health behaviours. Clinical Psychologist 7:105108.

Think you can predict your own behaviour – Part II

Think you can predict your own behaviour - Part II

We found this topic so interesting that we couldn’t resist a Part II. Hope you’re enjoying it too. So here goes another example which shows that intentions and attitudes are one thing, but behavior reveals something else.

It is well known that people don’t always ‘speak their minds’, and it is suspected that people don’t always ‘know their minds’. For example, if we ask a smoker “How much do you smoke?” A smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may purposely report smoking only 2 packs a day because he may be embarrassed to admit the correct number. But a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may report smoking only 2 packs because he honestly believes he only smokes about 2 packs a day. (That’s why we never ask questions about behavior. We observe it.)

The unwilling-unable distinction is like the difference between purposely hiding something from others and unconsciously hiding something from yourself. Project Implicit makes it possible to penetrate both of these types of hiding. Renowned scientists Brian Nosek, Mahzarin Banaji and Tony Greenwald have developed a test called the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

In IATs conducted between July 2000 and May 2006 on racism, they found about 5 lakh people out of approx. 7.3 lakh that took the IAT, had an automatic preference for White people compared to Black people. Only about 1.3 lakh people were neutral in their preference and remaining 1 lakh preferred Black people compared to White people. The same people may claim they’re not racists, but their behavior suggests otherwise. Its possible people try to keep unsavory attitudes to themselves, but research suggests that people are actually successfully hiding it from themselves.

Take the test here and see the results for yourself.

When I took the race test I got a result stating – Your data suggests a slight automatic preference for Black people compared to White people. I blame it on Rihanna.

What did your test reveal?

Illustration: Janelle Penny Commissiong (born June 15, 1953), a former beauty pagent titleholder. After winning the Miss Trinidad and Tobago title, she went on to be crowned Miss Universe in 1977.

Think you can predict your own behaviour?

Think you can predict your own behaviour?

Your answer is most probably a yes, right? You may even be saying how stupid it would be, if I couldn’t even predict my own behavior. But as with most posts on behavior, you may be surprised to know the difference between intention and behavior.

One of the studies by Ji and Wood titled ‘Purchase and consumption habits: Not necessarily what you intend’ tested if participants could predict their own consumption of fast food, how much they watched TV news, and how often they took the bus over a week. Each person was asked how much he or she intended to carry out each of these three behaviors over the coming week (intention). They were also asked how often they had performed each behavior in the past (habit). Importantly, over the next 7 days their actual behavior was recorded.

The results showed that when the habits were weak, the intentions tended to predict behavior. So if you didn’t watch TV news that much, your intention for the coming week, was likely to be accurate (whether the intention was to watch more, less or the same). So far we seem to be right in predicting our own behavior.

Here’s the interesting part. When the habits were strong, the intentions tended to predict behavior less. So if you were in the habit of visiting fast food restaurants, it didn’t matter much whether you intended to cut down or not. Chances are that your habit would continue irrespective of your intention.

It gets worse. Participants, who had the strongest habits and were the most confident in their predictions, were the least successful at predicting their behavior. Ouch. So much for our perception of self-control.

Says Jeremy Dean, author of popular blog, “When we perform an action repeatedly, its familiarity seems to bleed back into our judgments about their behavior. We end up feeling we have more control over precisely the behaviors that, in reality we have the least control over.”

When you think about the things you might do on a weekly basis in the same context – visiting a restaurant or meeting up with friends – it feels as if these decisions are highly intentional. But the research suggests that we have less intentional, conscious control over these types of behaviors than we would like to think. That’s why our intentions fall weak in the face of habits, and need Behavioural Design to change them, rather than campaigns aimed at increasing motivation.

Source: M.F. Ji and W. Wood titled ‘Purchase and consumption habits: Not necessarily what you intend’ – Journal of Consumer Psychology 17, no. 4 (2007): 261

When rewards backfire

When rewards backfire


When we want to motivate people the most common thing to get is dangle a carrot in front of them. Rewards. Mostly monetary and some times non-monetary rewards. But by offering a reward we’re subconsciously giving a signal to employees that the task is actually undesirable. Because if the task were desirable, they wouldn’t need a prod. Here’s one such study that shows how extrinsic rewards kill intrinsic motivation.

Behavioural scientists Mark Lepper, David Greene and Robert Nisbett’s study – Undermining intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the overjustification hypothesis- Journal of Personality and Social Pyschology 28, no. 1: 129-37 (1979) is a classic and most cited in motivation literature. In their experiment, they divided children into three groups in their free play period. The first was the ‘expected award’ group. This group was shown a ‘Good Player’ certificate with a blue ribbon and the child’s name and was asked if they wanted to draw to receive the award. The second group was the ‘unexpected award’ group. Researchers asked children if they simply wanted to draw. If they decided to, when the session ended, the researchers handed each child a ‘Good Player’ certificate. The third group was the ‘no award’ group. Researchers asked children if they simply wanted to draw, but neither promised them a certificate at the beginning nor gave them one at the end.

Two weeks later researchers secretly observed students in the free play period. Children previously in the ‘unexpected award’ and ‘no award’ groups drew just as much, and with the same relish, as they had before the experiment. But children who were in the ‘expected award’ group who received the award, showed much less interest and spent much less time drawing. Even two weeks later, those contingent rewards – if you do this, then you’ll get that – had a negative effect.

This is one of the most robust findings in behavioural science. In 1999 Edward Deci and colleagues reanalyzed three decades of studies on the effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation and came to the conclusion that tangible extrinsic rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation. When institutions focus on short-term behaviour and opt for controlling people’s behaviour, they do considerable long-term damage.

(Edward Deci, Richard Ryan and Richard Koestner – A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation – Psychological Bulletin 125, no. 6:659 (1999))

Behavioural Design talk at TEDxGateway, Mumbai

Behavioural Design talk at TEDxGateway

Friends, I’m speaking at TEDxGateway on Bleep and Behavioural Design.

There are lots of interesting speakers lined up. So come over to NCPA, Mumbai on 8th Dec 2013 to listen and discuss some stimulating ideas and thinking that could change the way you view the world.

All the information is here –

Hope to see some of you there,

Anand & Mayur.

How Michael Phelps’ coach trained him

How Michael Phelps’ coach trained him

We know how Phelps long torso and relatively short legs gave him an edge over others. But here’s perhaps a not-so-well-known insight into how Bill Bowman, Michael Phelps coach, created a habit in Phelps that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool.

Ever since Phelps was a teenager, Bowman would tell him to go home and watch the videotape before going to sleep and when waking up. The videotape, however, wasn’t a real one. Rather, it was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Each night before falling asleep and each morning after waking up, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off, swimming flawlessly, visualizing his strokes, the walls of the pool, his turns, the water dripping off his lips as his mouth cleared the surface, the finish and what it would be like to rip off his cap at the end. He would lie in bed and watch the race and the smallest details until he knew each second by heart.

During practices, Bowman would shout, “Put in the videotape!” and Phelps would push harder and it worked. “We figured it was best to concentrate on these tiny moments of success and build them into mental triggers”, says Bowman. “If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before the competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits had taken over. The actual race was just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and was nothing but victories. Winning became a natural extension.”

On the morning of 13th August 2008, at Beijing four minutes before the start of the race, as he always did, Phelps stood behind his starting block, bounced slightly on his toes, came on the block when his name was announced, stepped off, swung his arms three times, got into stance and leapt off when the gun sounded. But as soon as he hit the water, he knew something was wrong. There was moisture in his goggles. As he approached the third turn the cups of his goggles were completely filled and he couldn’t see anything.

But Phelps swam calmly. Bowman had made Phelps swim in the dark, believing that he needed to be ready for any surprise. Phelps had mentally rehearsed how he would respond to a goggle failure. Phelps began counting his strokes in the last lap. Midway he increased his effort for his final eruption. He began anticipating the wall and the number of strokes he needed. Nineteen strokes, then twenty. He felt he needed one more. He made the twenty-first huge stroke and glided with his arms and touched the wall. Ripped off the goggles and looked at the scoreboard. It said World Record next to his name. When asked how it felt like to swim blind, Phelps said, “Like I imagined it would.”

One study on this topic by Sanders et al. was carried out on medical students. On top of their usual training—which included physical practice—half were trained in mental imagery techniques, while the other half studied their textbooks. When the students carried out live surgery, those who’d used mental imagery performed better, on average, than those assigned the book learning.

What’s playing in your tape?

Source: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

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