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

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

Behavioural Design for safer public spaces (Mint)

Behavioural Design for public spaces

This article first appeared in Mint on 24th Sep, 2018.

Recently it was reported that a 9W 697 Mumbai-Jaipur flight was turned back to Mumbai after take off as, during the climb the crew forgot to select the bleed switch to maintain cabin pressure. This resulted in the oxygen masks dropping. Thirty out of 166 passengers experienced nose and ear bleeding, some also complained of headache.

Aviation safety experts say such an incident was “extremely rare” as turning on the bleed switch is part of a check-list that pilots are expected to mandatorily adhere to. If turning on a switch that regulated cabin pressure is part of standard protocol, how could the pilots make such a simple, common-sensical error. And more importantly how can such errors be avoided in the future?

Traditional thinking suggests increasing the training of the pilots so that it makes them better and thereby avoid such errors. But training is not a full-proof method of ensuring human errors don’t get repeated. That’s because as long as humans need to rely on their memory to ensure the cabin pressure switch is turned on, errors are bound to happen. Sure check lists work. But that’s still a manual method of ensuring that the switch is turned on. And after repeatedly performing the tasks on the checklists over multiple flights, checklists themselves become routine habitual tasks done without much thinking. Also given that there are multiple tasks pilots need to perform in the 3-4 minutes after taking off, the chance of errors happening during those critical moments becomes high.

So instead of the pilot having to rely on their memory or routine check-lists, the answer to avoid such human errors lies in implementing simple behavioural design nudges. For example, if there was a continuous audio-visual reminder that the bleed switch had not been turned on, it would draw the pilot’s attention and it would be highly likely they would have turned it on. Such an audio-visual reminder was not present in this kind of an older generation of aircraft, and therefore the chance of human error increased.

The Japanese have a term for such error-proofing – poka yoke. This Japanese word means mistake proofing of equipment or processes to make them safe and reliable. These are simple, yet effective behavioural design features that make it almost impossible for errors to occur. The aim of error-proofing is to remove the need for people to think about the products or processes they are using. Some examples of behaviourally designed products used in everyday life are the microwave oven that doesn’t work until the door is shut or washing machines that start only when the door is shut and remains shut till the cycle is over. Elevator doors now have sensors that cause them to not close when there is an obstruction. This prevents injury to someone trying to enter as the doors are closing.

Human behaviour cannot be trusted to be as reliable as a machine. In fact, human behaviour is far from perfect. Yes, the people who operate expensive and complicated machines may be the best trained, but human errors in the form of simple error, lapse of judgment or failure to exercise due diligence are inevitable. According to Boeing, in the early days of flight, approximately 80 percent of accidents were caused by the machine and 20 percent were caused by human error. Today that statistic has reversed. Approximately 80 percent of airplane accidents are due to human error (pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics, etc.) and 20 percent are due to machine (equipment) failures.

Another instance of how systems could be made safe by applying behavioural design is of airplane emergency evacuations. During the emergency landing of the Emirates flight EK521 at the Dubai airport in 2016, passengers were running to get their bags from the overhead cabins, instead of evacuating the plane. Only when the airplane staff began yelling at them to leave their bags and run, did the passengers finally pay heed to their calls and evacuate. Just a few minutes after the evacuation, the plane caught fire. It was a near miss situation. Had even a few passengers waited to get their bags from the overhead cabins, many of them would have got engulfed in fire. Again the natural instinct to correct such a situation would be to train people to evacuate and get them to listen to the flight’s safety instructions. But behavioural science studies have proven that such efforts are time-consuming, money-draining, unscalable and most importantly ineffective at changing human behaviour. In such an emergency situation, if the overhead cabins were automatically locked, with a label “Locked due to emergency”, passengers would not waste time trying to open them. That would in turn get passengers to behave in the desired manner and evacuate faster.

Sometimes behavioural design nudges are intuitive. Other times they are counter-intuitive. In a fire-drill experiment by behavioural scientist Daniel Pink, he found that placing an obstacle like pillar in the middle of a doorway got people to exit a hall 18% faster than without the pillar. The pillar was an obstacle but it split up people into two streams at the exit. That got people to use each side of the door, which in turn made the flow of people exiting the hall a lot smoother and faster. When the pillar wasn’t there to separate them at the exit, people bottle-necked at the door making the exit slower. Likewise, behavioural design could go a long way to design safer buildings, machines and systems and reduce human errors.






Use a calculator, not your heart, to assess risk (Mint)

Use a calculator, not your heart, to assess risk

This article of ours first appeared in Mint on 6th Dec, 2017.

It has taken millions of years for humans to evolve into the species we are today. But it’s been only a few decades of living with rapid technological and economic development. We have lived among and survived snakes, spiders and other species that could have led to our extinction. That’s probably why our brain has developed parts like the amygdala, which acts as an alarm system, generating fast emotions like fear when we notice anything that’s out of place or scary. The amygdala that induces the fear reflex has helped our ancestors survive and it continues to remain a vital tool in today’s daily life. When we see a face that’s scared, we take cues and act instantly; or, if we smell smoke, the amygdala floods the body with fear signals even before we are consciously aware of being afraid.

However, today, life has been changed dramatically due to money and technology. A potential economic threat makes us panic. When our investments take a sudden drop, we react and sell our investments; making ourselves poorer, not richer. But we feel more comfortable to invest when markets are rising. We do the opposite of what common sense shows us—we need to buy low and sell high to make a profit, but we buy high and sell low. In other circumstances, people avoid investing in the stock markets because they are afraid that the stock market might crash, but have no idea how rising prices eat up their savings and cause a loss of money. We are not good at assessing risk—monetary and non-monetary.

The more vivid and imaginable a risk is, the scarier it feels. Behavioural scientist, Paul Slovic, says people will pay twice as much for an insurance policy that covers hospitalization for ‘any disease’ than one that covers hospitalization for ‘any reason’. Any reason covers any disease, but ‘any reason’ seems vague, while ‘any disease’ is vivid. The vividness fills us with fear. It’s not logical. Decades of behavioural science is proving than we don’t always make rational decisions. On the contrary, we often make decisions based on emotion and therefore the decisions sometimes tend to be not rational. For example, people are scared of flying because a plane crash is vivid. Tons of people, including myself, buy air travel insurance, but if we take probability of a plane crash into account, we will find the air travel insurance not worthwhile. At the same time, driving a car without wearing a seat belt feels perfectly safe for a lot of people in India. Let’s see what the numbers have to say. Last year, no one died in India due to a plane crash compared to more than 1,50,000 people who died in road accidents in 2016. So what’s safer—flying by plane or driving on roads? Here’s another example: terrorism. Terrorism creates images of violence, gun shots, bombs, bloodshed. We feel that the risk of terrorism is uncontrollable. But did you know that only 178 civilians died due to terrorism in India this year. On the other hand, smoking kills 1 million people every year in India. Yet we feel more scared of terrorists than cigarettes. But smokers feel they are in charge and understand the consequences, that’s why the risks seem lower than they truly are.

Says Nobel-winning behavioural scientist, Daniel Kahneman, “We tend to judge the probability of an event by the ease with which we can call it to our mind. The more recently an event has occurred, or the more vivid our memory of something like it in the past, the more available an event will be in our minds and the more probable it will seem to happen again.” Clearly that’s not the right way to assess risk because the event does not become more probable just because it occurred recently. In fact, the best time to ‘value invest’ is when the markets are depressed. That’s likely to be a time when there is more bad news than good news, when corporate performances don’t look that good and when analysts don’t have nice things to say. In other words: when markets are low. However, people judge such times to be risky and stay away from stock markets, and when the markets are rising, people hear positive news all around and most investors find comfort in positive statements made by analysts. Due to this positivity and euphoria, people invest at high levels only to find that the trend doesn’t hold true for long.

Understanding risk is critical to managing money. So when you think about risk, it’s better to use a calculator instead of your heart.






How a teacher changed the lives of school kids

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.






To overcome big problems, think small

To overcome big problems, think small

Most of the times, when we think of big problems, for example, bad hygiene habits of a nation, we tend to believe that the solution also needs to be as big. But it may not require lots of resources to overcome the big problem. Time and again Behavioural Design has proven that the solution needn’t be big in terms of budgets, effort and resources. Here’s one more nudge/ intervention of Behavioural Design that illustrates the same.

In 1990, Jerry Sternin used to work for Save the Children and was sent to Vietnam to fight malnutrition amongst children. Sternin had read a lot about malnutrition and conventional wisdom indicated that malnutrition was a result of intertwined problems like sanitation, poverty, lack of access to clean water and lack of awareness about nutrition.

Sternin instead chose not to be overwhelmed with such theoretical knowledge. Rather, he traveled to rural villages to find out if there were any very poor kids who were big and healthy than the typical kid in Vietnam. He thought that if these kids were staying healthy against the odds, why couldn’t every kid be healthy?

After observing lots of such families for deviations between healthy kid families and unhealthy kid families, he discovered that mothers of healthy kids were feeding them the same amount of food as mothers of unhealthy kids, but were spreading it across four meals rather than two. Second difference was in the style of feeding – mothers who hand-fed the kids had healthy kids vs the norm of kids feeding themselves. Third most interesting finding was that healthy kids were fed tiny shrimp and crabs, considered appropriate food only for adults by most mothers. The mothers of healthy kids also tossed in sweet-potato greens, considered a low-class food.

Conventionally one would tend to believe that if somehow all the mothers would get to know about these 3 healthy ways of feeding their kids, malnutrition could be eliminated. But Sternin knew that mere awareness does not change behavior. So instead of building an awareness program, Sternin created a community program, in which fifty malnourished families in groups of ten, would meet at a nearby hut each day and prepare food with shrimps, crabs and sweet-potato greens.

Mothers got first hand experience of keeping their sons and daughters healthy. Soon neighboring mothers were convinced by the power of social proof. Within 6 months 65% of the kids were better nourished in that village. The experiment moved to other villages. The community cooking program reached 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages. A big dent in malnutrition done with a small team and a shoestring budget!

Source: David Dorsey, Fast company, Dec 2000. Jerry Sternin’s presentation at Boston College Center for CSR in April 2008






Ascent + INK talk on Behavioural Design (Video)

Was a privilege to talk at Harsh Mariwala’s Ascent + INK conclave, along with industry stalwarts like Harsh Mariwala, Chairman, Marico and Uday Kotak, Executive Vice Chairman, Kotak Mahindra Bank.

Topics included irrational behaviour of masses, doctors, air travellers, car drivers; inefficacy of campaigns like Swachh Bharat at changing behaviour; why our government and companies in India need to adopt behavioural design; public behaviour change; Bleep, People Power and how Nudge units are being implemented by governments around the world.






Mirrors can improve customer service and even reduce spitting (ET)

Mirror, mirror on the wall

(The image is an exception to positive ways of using mirrors)

This article first appeared in The Economic Times (ET) on 31st March, 2017

A greater degree of self-awareness can make us conscious of what we think, say and do. Self-awareness seems to originate somewhere in the mind. It feels like we become aware of something when we look inside.

But there’s another way of making ourselves self-aware, and that’s literally by looking at ourselves in the mirror. Doing so causes us to reflect on our behaviour and act in more socially desirable ways. Several behavioural science studies validate this phenomenon.

In an interesting experiment, behavioural scientist Arthur Beaman and his colleagues called children to a known local house in the neighbourhood. Aresearch assistant pointed to a large bowl of candies on a nearby table and told the children that they could take one of the candies.

The research assistant then mentionedthat she had some work to do and exited the room, while another research assistant was secretly watching the kids through a hidden peephole. The experiment revealed that over a third of the kids (33.7 per cent) in this control group took more candy than they should have.

The behavioural scientists then called another bunch of kids to the house and repeated the same experiment.

For this test group, they angled a large mirror by the candy bowl in such a way that the kids had to look at themselves in the mirror when they took the candy. Theft rate in the test group was only 8.9 per cent compared to 33.7 per cent in the control group.

Says behavioural scientist Robert Cialdini, “Mirrors could reduce stealing or dishonesty and could even be seen as a good alternative to video surveillance, which is not only costly but sends a signal to people that they’re not trusted.”

In another experiment, led by behavioural scientists Carl Kallgren, Cialdini and R Reno, when participants arrived at their laboratory, half were exposed to a CCTV featuring their own image — it was almost like seeing themselves in a mirror — while the other half watched a CCTV featuring random geometric shapes. The participants were told that their heart rate was to be monitored, which involved placing some gel on their hand.

Once participants believed they were done with the study, they were given paper tissues to wipe off the gel and asked to exit by taking the stairs. The researchers were looking to see whether the participants dropped the paper tissues in the stairs on their way out. The experiment revealed that 24 per cent of participants who saw themselves in the CCTV littered, compared to 46 per cent of those who didn’t see themselves in the CCTV.

There are many studies including two more done by Melissa Bateson and Stacey Sentyrz-Brad Bushman, which have found that mirrors — or other possibilities that produce mirror-like effects — persuade us to behave in more socially desirable ways. People made self-aware are less likely to cheat.

Those made self-aware by acting in front of a mirror or TV camera exhibit increased self-control, and their actions more clearly reflect their attitudes. In other experiments done in front of a mirror, people taste-testing cream cheese have found to have eaten less of the high-fat variety.

We wouldn’t possibly be digging our noses if we saw ourselves in the mirror, would we? On a serious note, two practical behavioural design solutions come to my mind, based on such behavioural science experiments.

One is that customer service executives in face-to-face retail environments have to sometimes deal with customers who are not particularly considerate, or are even rude. Only an experiment can tell if a mirror placed behind the customer service desk could get such customers to behave better. On the other hand, mirrors could also help customer service executives be more conscious of their own appearance, speech and sincerity, thus improving the customer experience.

A second behavioural design solution could be placing mirrors in the corners of staircases of buildings that have stain marks caused by people spitting. Spitting is often an unconscious act where the spitter spits out of habit. A mirror is likely to make people who spit at corners of staircases conscious of their action, preventing them from spitting at those spots.

Sure, spitting in the outdoor environment needs a different behavioural design solution. But for spitting in staircases of buildings, mirrors could be tested to see if they reduce spitting.



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