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.

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.”

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.

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

Psychology and Physiology are deeply connected – Part III

Continuing the series of ‘Psychology and Physiology are deeply connected’, this is the final one.

This experiment is popularly known amongst psychologists as ‘The Love Bridge’ study, named after the bridge in Capilano Canyon, Vancouver where the experiment took place. The suspension bridge spans 450 feet and hovers 230 feet above the ground, causing it to sway as the wind blows. There was another bridge in the area that was a small but sturdy wooden bridge bordered by guardrails, just ten feet off the ground.

At various times throughout the day, researchers Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron, had a young female assistant approach men between 18-35, as they stepped off the end of each bridge with a scripted story – that she was a psychology student conducting a study on the effects of exposure to scenic attractions on creative expression. The assistant would then ask each man to fill out a short survey. When done, she would offer to tell him about the study when she a little bit more time. Then she would write down her name and number and hand it over to the men. Most men happily accepted it and walked off.

As expected the female assistant started getting calls from the men. While only two of sixteen men who crossed the small sturdy wooden bridge called, half of the eighteen men who crossed the suspension bridge called. Why did she miraculously become more attractive to the men who crossed the suspension bridge than to the men who crossed the small sturdy wooden bridge?

Turns out that for the men who crossed the suspension bridge, anxiety and adrenaline translated into a heightened romantic interest in the assistant. Their physiological reactions affected their perceptions and behaviour.

But could the men who took the suspension bridge be more courageous and daring and therefore more likely to take a chance on calling the assistant? 

To test the possibility, the researchers went back to Capilano to conduct a follow-up study. This time the female assistant was stationed only at the end of the suspension bridge. She approached some of the men right after they crossed and others, ten minutes after they had finished crossing.

More men who met the assistant just after they crossed called, than the ones who were approached ten minutes later. The latter’s anxiety had subsided and their adrenaline levels had gone down.

No wonder going for a roller-coaster ride on a date makes sense.

Source: Attraction under conditions of high anxiety – Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 30 (1974): 510-17.

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