The limitations of asking questions in research

Researchers ask people for their opinion about their product, packaging or concepts to pick insights about their appeal, and get wonderful feedback that is sincere, detailed, and emphatic but has little relation to the truth.

We wrote about ‘Why focus groups cannot be relied’ earlier on the blog. Here’s another perspective – impression management. Impression management is one of a diverse array of forces that influence our truthfulness. Here’s a behavioural science study in which White college students were asked to state their level of agreement (ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’) with the following two statements:

  1. It is a bad idea for Blacks and Whites to marry each other.
  2. Black people are generally not as smart as Whites.

Half the participants who were asked these questions received them the Black researchers and other half from White researchers. All participants were assured that the answers would be confidential.

When the questioner was Black, the participants’ responses were noticeably more Black-favorable than when the questioner was White. The impression management effect occurred without the subjects being aware that their answers had been influenced by the race of the questioner.

Impression management produces flawed, inaccurate responses to many questions, not just race related. That’s why we don’t ask people questions or conduct surveys or focus groups. We rely on the knowledge of the human brain, cognitive neuroscience, behavioural economics and thousands of proven experiments conducted by behavioural scientists on human behaviour, to create Behavioural Design solutions that make the impact.

Source: J.B McConahey, B.B. Hardee & V. Batts – Has racism declined in America? It depends on who is asking and what is asked – Journal of Conflict Resolution 25, 563-579. (1981)

Honesty: such a lonely word

Honestly, how many of us are honest all the time? We would like to believe we are honest, good, wonderful, moral people but at the same time we also would like to benefit from cheating if it helps us economically. But can both happen together? Can we cheat a little and yet think of ourselves as wonderful honest people. Apparently the answer is Yes.

Says Dan Ariely, “Due to our flexible cognitive ability, and due to the fact that we can rationalize things very quickly, as long as we cheat just a little bit, we can both benefit from cheating, just a little bit, and we can still view our self as honorable people.” And that’s he calls the fudge factor.

Once Dan ran an interesting experiment in which he gave people a sheet of paper with 20 simple math problems to be solved in five minutes and paid them $1 per correct answer. At the end of the 5 min people counted how many ones they got correctly, shredded the sheet of paper, announced how many questions they got correctly and got paid accordingly. What the people in this experiment didn’t know is that the shredder only shred the sides of the page. Dan found that people solve 4 problems, but they report to be solving 6. And most of the people cheated. He tried the experiment with 25 cents, 50 cents, $2, $5, $10 but the results were similar – lots of people cheated a little.

In another experiment Dan went to UCLA, and asked about 500 students to try and recall the Ten Commandments. None of them could recall all Ten Commandments. But after getting them to try and recall the Ten Commandments he gave them the same math task. And the result was – zero cheating. Regardless of whether one was religious or an atheist, nobody cheated.

Just thinking about morality seems to shrink our fudge factor, gets us to be a bit more careful about our own behavior and therefore allows us to be more honest.

Dan also tried a secular version of the experiment. He edited one sentence to the beginning of the test. “I understand that this short survey falls under the MIT or Yale honor code – Signature.” What happened? People signed, they did the test, they shredded, no cheating whatsoever. And no cheating whatsoever despite the fact that neither MIT nor Yale actually had an honor code.

Source: Dishonesty of Honest People – A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance – Nina Mazar, On Amir and Dan Ariely – Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 45, No. 6, pp. 633-644 – 2008

Should a company offer job applicants money to NOT take up the job?

Yes if it wants to induce cognitive dissonance – the feeling you get when behaviour and belief don’t match. Like when you gorge on that sizzling brownie with ice-cream and chocolate sauce when you know it’s going to make you put on. But then you say what the hell ‘Life is an ice-cream, enjoy it before it melts.’ Here’s an interesting way a company uses the same principle of cognitive dissonance to meet its hiring goals, by paying applicants to NOT take up the job. This complicated phenomenon is best explained by behavioural scientist Dan Ariely…

“There’s this interesting company called Zappos. Zappos is a shoe company. One of the interesting things about Zappos, is the hiring process.

They bring people in for training and train them for around a week. At the end of this training, they say to people, we would love for you to be part of the Zappos family. But this is not the right place for everybody. And if this is not the right place for you, we don’t think this is something good for you. And therefore, we will pay you to NOT take the job.

They started by offering people $500. They increased it to $2000 and then increased it to $4000. Think about it. What a crazy idea. You come, you do a week of training. At the end of week of training they say we’ll pay you $4000 not to take the job. Now these are not highly paid people, these are people who are going to get paid $12, 14, 15 an hour to do customer service on the phone.

Why would Zappos pay people not to take the job? There are basically two reasons. The first reason – you actually don’t want the people who don’t like their jobs so much to be around because not only are they not going to do a good job, they’re going to pollute other people. And Zappos is a fantastic customer service company.

The second thing has to do with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is about the fact that if we behave one way but don’t believe in the same way, this creates a tension, what Leon Festinger called dissonance.

Can we change what we’ve done? No. We’ve done it already. Maybe we can change what we believe. And that actually happens quite a lot. You behave a certain way, and then you shift your belief to, to fit with that.

So what happened to Zappos? You have these $4,000. Now, it’s not as if Zappos is telling you, you know what, for the rest of your life every morning you could wake up and decide if you want to take the money or stay on the job. No, no. You have 48 hours. And if the end of 48 hours you decide not to take the money, you wake up every morning for the rest of your career at Zappos and you’ll tell yourself, I could have gotten $4000 but I decided to work at Zappos. That means that if I say no to this offer, then I am buying in. And because of that, you go to work much more excited.

Only 2% of Zappos trainees take the money and leave. Often they are the same people the trainers already had doubts about.”

Do you suffer from the money illusion?

In a study by Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler, subjects were asked to judge the fairness of pay cuts and pay increases, in a company located in a community with substantial unemployment. One group of subjects was told that there was no inflation in the community and was asked whether a 7 percent wage cut was “fair.” A majority, 62 percent, judged the action to be unfair. Another group was told that there was 12 percent inflation and was asked to judge the perceived fairness of a 5 percent raise. Here, only 22 percent thought the action was unfair. Similar results suggesting this money illusion have been reported by Shafir, Diamond, and Tversky.

People fail to notice how inflation eats up savings, people fail to notice how inflation eats up returns, people fail to notice convenience fees on air tickets, people fail to notice fees on mutual funds, people fail to notice brokerage on stocks bought and sold, the list goes on.

Do you suffer from the money illusion too?


Daniel Kahneman, Jack L. Knetsch and Richard Thaler – Fairness as a Constraint on Profit Seeking: Entitlements in the Market – The American Economic Review Vol. 76, No. 4, pp. 728-741 (Sep, 1986)

Eldar Shafir, Peter Diamond Amos Tversky – Money Illusion – The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 112, Issue 2, Pages 341–374 (May 1997)

How to get people to stop littering?

Let’s explore few ways in which one could reduce littering:

1. You could fine people for littering.

2. You could place CCTVs in the area.

3. You could incentivize people for using garbage bins.

4. You could create a social stigma for people who litter.

5. You could make throwing stuff in bins fun.

6. You could use social proof to indicate that a high percentage of people use the bin.

But behavioural scientists did something better in the 2011 Copenhagen study that reduced littering by 46%.

They placed green footprints on the ground, pointing the way to the nearest garbage bin. Simple, low cost, effective Behavioural Design.

India, though is a different story. Usually there are no trash bins in public places, because the trash bins get stolen by people who sell it to make some money, even though they are fixed to the ground with screws. Everything in India has re-sale value.

So Briefcase has created a Behavioural Design solution in the form of non-stealable, waste-segregated, long-lasting, low cost, low maintenance, all weather, endorsable trash bins. But unfortunately, the local government authorities here in Mumbai – the officers from BMC, aren’t interested because of apathy. How can we change their behaviour? Can you help us?


Do you spend enough time analyzing the problem?

I used to hear the words ‘the client wants it yesterday’ a lot when I used to be in advertising. And for various reasons people in advertising succumbed to the pressure. This in turn led to clients crunching the timelines even shorter as years passed, while the ad industry diligently kept working harder at keeping deadlines, lowering the quality of strategic thinking, thereby positioning ad agencies as short-term ad campaign makers.

Though you may not be from the ad industry you may find yourself in a similar situation. Unfortunately, the temptation in such time-pressured situations is to use habitual responses to get started on the solution immediately. Since problem-construction feels like a waste of time, it’s the phase that gets sacrificed most often. In reality, it is the most important part of the creative process.

In the classic study on creative preparation conducted by behavioural scientists Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, they asked art students to create a still-life painting of an object, which was later evaluated professionally. The study found that students judged to have created the best work were those who spent the longest preparing – thinking about the object itself and how they were going to use it. When Mihaly returned to the same people 7 and 18 years later, he found that it was these measures of problem identification and construction that predicted the artists’ long-term success. Even 18 years later, artists who spent longer constructing the problem were more successful.

Says Jeremy Dean of, “The choices made in the early stages have a massive impact later. That’s why spending longer thinking about the problem before you dive in is likely to lead to higher levels of creativity in the final product. Fools rush in where the more creative dare to tread.”

Needless to say, deadlines are part and parcel of constraints in any commercial work. Constraints bring out the best in us, but we need to give ourselves adequate time to analyze the problem well enough. That’s why before identifying the Behavioural Design principles to be applied to the challenge, we spend a substantial amount of time analyzing the product and customer data and map out the customer journey, whether the customer is a consumer, employee, investor or simply put, the user.

Source: Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – The creative vision: A longitudinal study of problem finding in art – Wiley New York 1976

S.M. Rostan – Problem finding, problem solving and cognitive controls: An empirical investigation of critically acclaimed productivity – Creative research journal 7, no. 2 (1994): 97-110

Behavioural Design for Urban Planning

We were happy to be invited to speak at Milano Arch Week 2019 on applying Behavioural Design to urban planning or as they liked to refer to it ‘Urban Regeneration’. We are happy that architects are opening up to our practice of Behavioural Design to build cities that work for people living in it and to use architecture to modify public behaviour.

Our talk included Behavioural Design examples from my Instagram feed. Some of the examples we referred to were the Ballot Bin that gets cigarette smokers to stub their cigarette buds at the Ballot Bin because they are motivated to vote for their choice, whether the choice is about your favourite football player or some other topical question. We were asked about Bleep horn reduction system as a Behavioural Design nudge to reduce drivers’ honking. We spoke about how the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) in India has made it mandatory for appliances to come with star ratings and how it’s nudging people to choose higher star rated appliances so that people can save money and in doing so also consume lower power and contribute towards climate crisis in a positive manner. Some of the other examples we spoke about were Behavioural Design nudges to reduce overspeeding, getting people to – use trash bins in the outdoor, use sanitizers in hospitals, use stairs instead of escalators, and many more. If you’re curious to know more, click here.

Behavioural Design & Sustainability Workshop

We were very happy to be invited by a foundation known as Acting for Good based out of Hong Kong, for a workshop on applying behavioural science for sustainability, conservation and climate change conducted by persuasion stalwarts Influence at Work (UK). Nature, wildlife and conservation is very close to our heart. Sure we’ll continue to work with commercial clients on consumer, employee and investor behaviour change, but solving behavioural aspects of climate change is something we are likely to dedicate a big portion of our time towards, because we all need to begin reversing the damage we’ve been causing to our planet. There isn’t a bigger challenge facing mankind and we’d like to be on the side of creating sustainable Behavioural Design solutions.

We loved interacting with environmentalists, ecologists, wildlife protectors, conservationists, trainers working in Asia as well as catching up with behavioural scientists from Influence at Work (UK). The workshop was very well put together. And the participants’ understanding of the behavioural science principles was also amazing. We got along so well, it felt our meeting had to happen. We already miss them. We’ve also begun thinking about behavioural challenges related to climate change and conservation. We can’t wait to spread the workshops and to work on some of the tough behavioural challenges in Asia being faced by workers on ground. We’ll communicate on this topic as and when we make progress. The journey has just begun and we’re hungry to make a big difference.

To change the habit, change the environment

Habits get automatically activated by our environment, especially so in stressful situations like when you get home hungry and tired – that time our habits are in full control of us. An effective way to change the habit is to change the environment.

Behavioural scientists Neal and colleagues had participants sit in a cinema watching trailers while others sat in a meeting room watching music videos. None were aware that the study was about eating habits; they were told it was about attitudes and personality.

When sitting in the cinema, strong habits cued by familiar circumstances had their familiar effect – people ate popcorn like robots. In the cinema, it didn’t matter whether the popcorn was stale or fresh or whether the person was starving or had a full stomach. Liking for popcorn had very little effect on how much they ate. Those with weaker popcorn eating habit did eat less of the stale popcorn.

In contrast, participants in the meeting room, all behaved, more thoughtful, whether or not they had a strong habit of eating popcorn at the cinema. They ate less of the stale popcorn, and less overall if they weren’t hungry. Even for those with strong popcorn eating habit, the change of environment was enough to disrupt their automatic behaviour. Overall, in the meeting room, people ate 50% less popcorn than those in the cinema.

Then some people in the cinema were told to eat with their non-dominant hand. If they were right-handed, they were told to eat with the left hand. This jolted them out of their habitual behaviour and brought the conscious mind back into action.

Take a close look at your kitchen. Is the first thing you see healthy or unhealthy? What’s easily accessible – fruits or packaged snacks? How big are the containers in which food is stored? How big are the plates you eat out of?

Source: D.T. Neal, W. Wood, M. Wu, D. Kurlander – The pull of the past – personality and social psychology bulletin 37, no. 11 (2011): 1428-1437