Forced to adopt new habits

This article first appeared in The Hindu on 14th May 2020.

Starting new habits is tough and requires overcoming inertia. Most of the time humans like maintaining the status quo. The majority of us don’t change the default settings when we buy a new mobile phone. Nor we do change the default settings of any new app we download. The tendency to stick with defaults happens across different aspects of our lives, from personal to social to office work. But this pandemic has jolted us out of our inertia.

We’re now doing new things that we haven’t done before. Those not used to cleaning their own dishes or homes are doing so now. Those not used to working from home are forced to do so now. Managers who wouldn’t allow their teammates to work from home have no choice but to ask them to work from home now. The pandemic has forced us to start new habits.

One habit that we Indians are not used to is maintaining sufficient physical distance from one another in public spaces. There are many reasons for this. Urban cities are densely packed with people. Houses in slums are cramped. Few roads have footpaths, forcing pedestrians to take up a portion of the road. Lanes are narrow; even main roads are narrow. Trains and buses are always packed. Queues are long. The population is overwhelming.

Environmental factors

Behavioural science studies are showing evidence that a large part of human behaviour is led by environmental factors. In normal times we don’t pay much attention to our environment because we don’t need to. If one has to take a crowded train to work because of lack of better choice, we get used to it because the goal is to get to office, in time. The environment becomes part of our sub-conscious. We navigate through life, lanes, stations, etc. without paying much attention to our surroundings. But the pandemic is now making us aware of our surroundings. Besides behaviours like hand washing, sanitising and wearing masks to prevent contracting COVID-19, the pandemic is driving another big behavioural change — keeping safe distance.

Merely informing people that they need to maintain at least six-feet distance from one another is not enough. People tend to forget about distancing while talking to one another. Maintaining distance is an alien concept for us.

That’s why we’re now seeing examples of behavioural design nudges in our environment that help us in maintaining distance in public spaces. Markings in the form of circles and squares are being painted outside grocery stores and pharmacies to help people maintain distance. People are now standing in these circles and squares while waiting in queues. I hope relevant authorities implement this rule, wherever crowds need to be managed.

Maintaining physical distancing

Around the world behavioural design nudges are being implemented to help people keep safe distance from one another. Restaurants in Hong Kong are putting tapes over alternate tables so that people do not occupy tables next to each other. A bus station in Thailand has put stickers on alternate seats so that people sit leaving one seat empty. Schoolchildren in Hangzhou, China are being made to wear caps with fan-like blades so that they cannot come close to other children. A police station in Thailand has placed transparent protective shields on desks creating a barrier between the police inspector and civilians. 

We are likely to see many more examples of such behavioural design in the near future that help us keep safe distance, because the lockdown will eventually be lifted.

To see examples of Behavioural Design for keeping safe distance, click here – Instagram

Creating social bonds while physical distancing

This article first appeared in Mint on 6th April 2020

Till a few weeks ago almost nobody in the world knew what social distancing meant. But since the spread of Covid-19, the term ‘social distancing’ has gone viral too. It implies steps that need to be taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus by maintaining a physical distance between people and reducing the number of times people come into close contact with each other. It involves keeping a distance of six feet from others and avoiding gathering together in large groups. It is critical in curbing the spread of the virus and must be followed as far as humanly possible.

But the term ‘social distancing’ means to avoid being social. That’s unnatural for most humans. Humans are a social and emotional beings. We survive and thrive being social. Children are attached to their parents. Grandparents love spending time with grandchildren. Siblings are emotionally close to each other. We all have friends who are our life supports. In India, house helps are like extended family. But now because of Covid-19 we suddenly need to follow social distancing from the people who are always there for us precisely in times like these. It goes against human nature. That makes using the term ‘social distancing’ inappropriate.

Matthew Liebermann, a social neuroscientist, has conducted several studies on how our brains processes social pain. He finds that to the brain, social pain feels a lot like physical pain. The more rejected the participant felt, the more activity there was in the part of the brain, that processes the distress of physical pain. What’s surprising is that studies show that drugs that treat physical pain, like paracetemol, can also reduce emotional pain like social rejection, because similar brain circuitry is engaged when we feel physical pain. That’s perhaps why we express social pain in terms of physical pain, like “she broke my heart”, “he hurt my feelings”. Social pain is real pain. Social pain is associated with decreased cognitive functioning, increased aggression and engagement in self-defeating behaviors, like excessive risk taking and procrastination. So its safe to assume that social distancing in today’s times must be causing real pain too.

Over the past few days we’ve been seeing people in various countries come out in their balconies and sing songs, play music and cheer the people who have been dedicating their time, risking their lives serving patients and delivering essential supplies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed the nation twice requesting we all stand in solidarity. It may not mean much for people who can easily take care of themselves during these times. But for the rest of us, his aim is to boost morale, because levels of stress and anxiety are rising. We humans don’t like uncertainty. We don’t know how long it may take for the vaccine to be made available for most of our population. We don’t like being caged in our little homes away from our social bonds. These times call for social bonding, not social distancing. Thankfully social bonding is possible today because of being able to stay connected over voice and video calling. We can talk to each other about how we are feeling, what we cooked, the jokes our children are cracking, the dreams we’re getting at night and details about the quarrels between couples.

On March 20, the World Health Organization officially changed its language. “We’re changing to say ‘physical distancing,’ and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove. Language matters. Just like how ‘climate change’ is now refered to as ‘climate crisis’ by media, ‘social distancing’ needs to be refered to as ‘physical distancing’. So start exercising physical distancing and social bonding, because this pandemic is going to last quite some time.

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.”

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?

Source: http://www.inudgeyou.com/green-nudge-nudging-litter-into-the-bin/

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

Behavioural Design for Employee engagement at Nasscom

It was fun speaking on applying Behavioural Design to improve employee engagement at Nasscom Technology & Leadership Forum on 21st Feb 2019 at Grand Hyatt, Mumbai. I spoke about few high-impact low-cost Behavioural Design nudges, based on experiments in behavioural science, that demonstrate how employee engagement and experience can be improved at the workplace. Given that employee engagement is at abysmally low levels at a lot of companies, it’s high time to apply behavioural science to transform processes like appraisals, feedback, learning, rewards, recognition, productivity, collaboration amongst other experiences to improve employees’ performance and happiness. The Behavioural Design nudges shared raised a good amount of smiles and curiosity. There were inquiries to deliver talks at different companies and do projects to change employee behaviour. Let’s see which of them happen. After all Behavioural Design is about improving conversions.

The journey from taking the lift to walking the stairs

The journey from taking the lift to walking the stairs

How often have we heard that we must take the stairs especially if we need to go to Floor nos. 1/2/3, yet how many times do we take it? It’s an exercise that can be so easily incorporated into everyday life, but awareness yet again doesn’t translate into action.

So a few behavioral scientists put a sign at the bottom of the stairs telling us that walking up the stairs burns about five times as many calories as taking the lift. Sixteen studies analyzed this intervention and found that on average, stair use increased by 50%. Sure this is from a low baseline, because not many people generally use the stairs in the first place, but it does demonstrate that a small nudge can do more than any big-budget-ad-campaign to change behavior. Few stations in Tokyo, Japan like Tamachi station have implemented it by mentioning the number calories burned with each step. And a friend of ours says he feels better while walking up the stairs because he can see how many calories he’s burning with each step.

Of course there’s a way of making climbing stairs fun like the Volkswagen piano staircase, but putting signs is probably a thousand times cheaper.

Source: R.E. Soler, K.D. Leeks, L.R. Buchanan, R.C. Brownson, G.W. Heath and D.H. Hopkins – Point-of-decision prompts to increase stair use: A systematic review update – American Journal of Preventive Medicine 38, no.2 (2010): S 292 – S 300

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