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.

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)

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

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.



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