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Home » Money How conflict of interest can drive money behaviour

This article first appeared in Mint.

All economic transactions have a buyer and seller. As consumers we are buyers. As marketers, we are sellers. So, in all economic transactions, buyers and sellers have a conflict of interest. If you are selling a soap to consumers, you are making money from consumers. Consumers get the soap in exchange. If the seller is unhappy, he can raise the price and make more money or target different buyers. If the buyer is unhappy he can choose another seller of soap for better value at a lower or higher price. Both sellers and buyers have some advantages and some disadvantages.

Let’s examine sellers and buyers in other markets. For example, wealth. The seller is either a company or an agent who sells a financial product and the buyer is the end consumer. When sellers sell a financial product, it’s not usually as simple to understand and buy as a soap is. The information is usually in favour of sellers. Also, sellers try and hide the actual price of the product and fees are not disclosed upfront or not mentioned clearly. The amount of money is also a relatively large part of the savings for purchase of a financial product, whether it is insurance or mutual funds or shares in an IPO. Think of a typical insurance agent or mutual fund adviser or relationship manager. Whichever company and product gives her a higher commission, she usually tries to sell that product to the buyer, irrespective of whether the buyer has any knowledge about it, needs that product or knows how much it costs. In such a case, sellers take advantage of buyers.

Another example is health. The seller is a hospital or a doctor. The information is in favour of the doctor because the patient is almost completely dependent on her. The conflict of interest is immense here between sellers (doctors) and buyers (patients), because the seller wants to make money off the buyer, while the buyer has very limited information and not much choice. One may think that the seller here is likely to have consideration for the buyer to a greater degree because of the nature of the relationship and the nature of the service, but does that really hold true? Do doctors sell only what the buyers need or do they take advantage of the lack of knowledge of buyers, just like insurance agents? Doctors too have goals of covering huge overhead costs and fixed costs like education to recover their money. So how do you think this kind of seller behaves with buyers? Surprisingly such conflict of interest doesn’t usually catch the attention of buyers.

Another type of conflict of interest, is by stockbrokers. The broker may claim to have “inside” information about impending news on a stock and may urge buyers to buy the stock quickly. Investors buy the stock, which creates a high demand and pumps up the prices. This entices more buyers to believe the hype and buy shares. Stockbrokers then dump their shares. The price drops, and other investors are left holding stocks that are worth nothing compared to what they paid for it.

We live in a world full of information asymmetry and caveat emptor (buyer beware). Sellers always put themselves first. As a solution, policies mandate disclosure. But disclosures like “insurance is a subject matter of solicitation”, assuming that buyers are being made aware of conflicts of interest, so they would discount the seller’s pitch. But this works only in theory. Behavioural science studies show that it makes no difference to the real behaviour of sellers or buyers. For example, calorie labelling on packaged foods does not have the intended effect of decreasing calorie purchasing or consumption.

Conflicts of interest are everywhere, and their fundamental nature leads to a change in people’s view of the world in important ways, causing them to give biased advice and behave in dishonest ways. Conflict of interest pushes sellers into the direction of what is not good for buyers financially. And disclosures, the way they are currently framed, don’t fix the problem. That’s why policy makers need to recognise the size of the conflict and the depth of their influence, and try to create behaviourally designed disclosures, so that buyers are not taken advantage of. Policy makers need to understand that buyers are not necessarily rational; they have limited attention, limited cognitive bandwidth, suffer from biases and use rules of thumb to make decisions. That’s why policy makers need to rethink how disclosures are consumed by buyers and understand their actual effect on the behaviour of buyers. It would be best if disclosures are made intuitive with simple visuals and plain language that’s easy to read and understand, and are placed at prominent locations, so that they become part of the buyer’s decision-making process.

What's the link between behavioural science and mutual funds

This article first appeared in afaqs, a leading Indian marketing and advertising publication. Afaqs shared it as a “mustread, brilliant article” on social media.

The mutual fund industry has been running an ambitious investor awareness campaign ‘mutual funds sahi hai’. At the same time, the AUM of the mutual fund industry touched a record level of Rs23 trillion by end of 2017—up from Rs16.46 trillion at the end of December 2016. But correlation does not mean causation. The main causes of the rise in mutual fund industry’s AUM is the combination of the effect of demonetization, decline in interest rate on fixed deposits, gold and real estate’s lackluster performance, flow of FII investment in Indian markets and the historical fact that retail investors are the last to jump into equity markets.

The ‘mutual fund sahi hai’ campaign has had messaging like ‘life mein risk, toh mutual funds mein kyon nahi’ (if there’s risk in life, then why not in mutual funds’), ‘thoda thoda karke bhi invest kiya ja sakta hai’ (one can invest small sums too), ‘planning long-term karni ho ya short-term’, ‘mutual funds mein patience rakhna zaroori hai (one needs patience in mutual funds). The campaign has poured crores of the industry’s money into such communication. However, the campaign reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. According to the story, none of the blind men were aware of the shape and form of an elephant. So they inspected it by touching it. The blind man whose hand landed on the trunk, thought the elephant was like a thick snake. The one who touched its ear, thought it was like a fan. The one who touched its leg, thought it was like a tree-trunk. The one who touched its side thought it was like a wall. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk and described it as a spear. None of the blind men had the complete context.

Similarly, the ‘mutual fund sahi hai’ campaign creates limited perception by describing ‘stand-alone features’ of a mutual fund. It doesn’t describe what a mutual fund is. Without the complete context, each blind man saw the elephant as something other than what it was. Likewise, without explaining what a mutual fund really is, how would a first time investor understand the concept of a mutual fund? And without understanding the concept of a mutual fund, how would a first time investor trust it?

Most investor awareness campaigns include heavy doses of complicated financial jargons like power of compounding, equity, debt, hybrid, etc. But these words are alien for first time investors. Plus, campaigns include wishful thinking like be a disciplined investor and execute goal-based plans. A behavioural science study by Fernandes, Lynch, & Netemeyer – a meta-analysis of over 200 financial programs on educating investors – has found that the largest effect any of them had was a mere 0.1%. Research amongst first time investors by Briefcase shows that the only thing they recall about mutual funds is ‘mutual funds are subject to market risks, please read the scheme documents carefully before investing’, without even knowing what it really means. Leave alone the cognitive challenge of choosing a fund from over a thousand of them, they don’t even get the concept of a mutual fund. The ‘mutual fund sahi hai’ campaign doesn’t address this problem.

But behavioural science can help. Behavioural science involves using powerful principles to create intuitive communication. One example is the principle of familiarity. In an experiment by behavioural scientist Bornstein et al, faces of individuals were flashed on a screen so that quickly that participants couldn’t recall having seen those people. Yet, when these participants met those people, they liked them and were persuaded by them to a greater extent. So to get first time investors to adopt mutual funds faster, the communication needs to make the unfamiliar, familiar. Mutual funds need to draw heavily from what people are already familiar with – banks, savings, fixed deposits, recurring deposits, provident funds, etc. But the latest ‘mutual fund sahi hai’ campaign does exactly the opposite and talks about mutual funds being a new way of investing.

The behavioural science principle of cognitive overload shows that too much choice and information results in indecision and lower sales. Behavioural scientists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper set up a display at a supermarket in which passersby could sample a variety of jams that were made by a single manufacturer. Either 6 or 24 flavors were featured at the display at any given time. Results – only 3% of those who approached the 24-choice display actually purchased any jam. In comparison 30% bought when the choice was between 6 flavors. In an experiment on retirement funds, behavioural scientists Sheena Iyengar, Huberman and Jiang analyzed retirement programs of 8,00,000 workers in the US and found that when only 2 funds were offered, the rate of participation was around 75%, but when the 59 funds were offered, the participation rate dropped to about 60%. Likewise, the concept of mutual funds needs to be made simple and easy to understand, without any jargons, ensuring there’s no cognitive overload for first time investors.

In our research with first time investors, when we asked them to illustrate ‘income’, they drew cash and cheque. When asked to illustrate ‘savings’, they drew a bank branch with its signage. But when they were asked to illustrate a ‘mutual fund’, they drew a blank. But the powerful principles of behavioural science can help create that image for a mutual fund – intuitive and persuasive. Because only if the first time investor gets what a mutual fund is, will she/he trust it and invest in it.

 

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.

 

Sources:

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

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-drinking-too-much-water-can-kill/

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)

We spoke on ‘Overcoming behavioural biases in investing’ at CafeMutual’s conference for financial advisors in Mumbai on 23rd Feb, 2018. We first introduced Behavioural Design and then followed it up with few examples of behavioural biases in investing, along with possible Behavioural Design solutions to overcome them. The feedback we got from the audience and co-speaker CEOs ranged from ‘thumbs up’ to ‘fantastic insights’ to ‘rocking presentation’. Honestly it was business as usual, but the feedback was great probably because behavioural science is relatively new for people and Behavioural Design nudges are simple, low cost, practical and effective at changing investor behaviour. While we’ve come up with few Behavioural Design nudges to manage our own investing behaviour, we’ve not even scratched the surface in coming up with Behavioural Design solutions for changing investor behaviour for clients. The journey has just begun. Looks like we’ll be creating lots of Behavioural Design nudges for changing investor behaviour – at communication level and product level – for both first-time and evolved investors. Fun.

Just two words can alter first impressions

Our propensity to label people, ideas or things based on our initial opinions of them is so high, that even two simple words have the power to influence it.

Here’s the experiment. A class of MIT students were told that their economics professor was out of town and therefore a substitute instructor would be filling in. The students received a brief bio describing him. Half the students received this version:

Mr._____ is from the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Economics 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a very warm person, industrious, critical, practical, and determined.

The second half received the same bio. Only two words had been changed:

Mr._____ is from the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Economics 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical, and determined.

At the end of the class, each student filled out an identical questionnaire about the substitute instructor. Most students from the first group that received the bio describing him as ‘very warm’, loved him. They described him as good natured, considerate, informal, sociable, popular, humorous and humane. Though the students in the second group sat in the same class, same session, most of these students saw him as self-centered, formal, unsociable, unpopular, irritable, humorless and ruthless!

Just two words have the power to alter our perception of another person and possibly sour the relationship before it even begins. Once we get a label in mind, we don’t notice things that don’t fit within the category. Labeling is important for us to go though the regular day bombarded with information, so that we can organize and simplify. But it also prevents us from seeing things as they are.

No wonder in job interviews, we all put our best show, and not surprisingly we just can’t see the realities of candidates. So while accessing anything look for objective data. From another point of view first impressions matter, so position yourself, your company, your brand to gain that advantage.

Source: Harold Kelley (University of Michigan) – The warm-cold variable in first impression of persons, Journal of Personality 18, no 4 (1950): 431-439.

Do movie reviews really have an impact on us?

Though each one of our tastes vary, there are a couple of common factors that help us decide whether we should watch the latest movie getting released – cast, director, producer, writer, music including the item song (we’re referring to Bollywood), the vibe of the promotional video, posters, interviews, etc. But what about the movie’s reviews? Do you feel it really has any impact on whether you decide to watch the movie or not? And whether you end up liking the movie or not?

Let’s try and understand this phenomenon via an interesting experiment done by Dan Ariely, Baba Shiv and Ziv Carmon. In this experiment they used a beverage that claims to increase mental acuity – SoBe and developed a 30 min word jumble test. The first group of students took the test without drinking any SoBe. The second group was told about the intelligence enhancing properties of SoBe. These students were charged $2.89 for the SoBe. A third group was exactly like the second group, but were told they would be given a discount on SoBe and would be charged only 89 cents.

The group that drank the full charge SoBe performed slightly better than the group that didn’t drink SoBe. And the group that drank the discounted SoBe performed worse than the full charge SoBe group and the SoBe-free group. The value the students attributed to the SoBe made the difference in their scores. Says Dan Ariely, one of the researchers and author of Predictably Irrational, “Expectations change the reality we live in. When you get something at a discount, the positive expectations don’t kick in as strongly. And once we attribute a certain value to something, it’s very difficult to view it in any other light.”

That suggests that if we shape our view of a movie by hearing or reading the opinion of critics, then the value the critic gives, becomes our expectation and therefore reality. So if the review is good, then we’re likely to like the movie and if its bad we may decide not to see it or if we happen to see it, we’re more likely to not like it.

Now why is it that so many movies do well in India inspite of not getting good reviews? A possible explanation is that those people don’t read reviews by critics, but instead follow reviews of other like-minded people, whose tastes in turn differ vastly from the critics. Either way social proof works.

Source: Placebo Effects of Marketing Actions: Consumers May Get What They Pay For – Baba Shiv, Ziv Carmon, and Dan Ariely – Journal of Marketing Research 383 Vol. XLII, 383–393 (November 2005)

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.

 

Removing call queuing can improve customer service

The call queuing system is the most basic tool of customer support (welcome to … press 1 for … press 2 for … press 9 to speak to a customer service executive. All our executives are busy. Please hold your call is important to us…). But in one instance employees of a company were using it to avoid talking to customers. They did so because customer service interactions were viewed as costs that were to be minimized. Therefore, if the calls weren’t answered, better would be the company’s profits.

The company we’re talking about is Rackspace that hosts Internet sites for other companies. In 1999 Graham Weston – the founder hired David Bryce to be the head of customer support to change the behaviour of employees dodging its customers. They decided that from now Rackspace would provide ‘Fanatical Support’ to its customers. But providing great service would cost more and if they offered both premium service and cutting edge technological expertise, they would be forced to set their prices high that would reduce their sales.

So Weston and Bryce implemented a small but powerful Behavioural Design nudge. They ripped off the call queuing system. Without it now, there was no safety net. Initially the phone would keep ringing until somebody picked it up. But now it became impossible to dodge the customer. The company also followed it up by launching awards for employees who were fanatical about service. In 2001 Rackspace became the first Internet hosting firm to turn a profit and over the next 6 years, it averaged 58% annual growth.

Rackspace employees didn’t see the need to improve customer service, but neither did Weston and Bryce do anything to make them feel the need. Instead, they chose to simply nudge them into action.

Source: Dan Heath (author of Switch) and Graham Weston’s (founder of Rackspace) interviews in 2007 and 2009

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.

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