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We are all horny

Honking is so embedded in Indian driving etiquette that Audi India has confirmed, in media, having designed extra loud, ultradurable horns for vehicles sold in India. Meanwhile people face a rapidly growing problem with many side effects of noise pollution. Some of them being increased hyper-tension, blood pressure, hearing loss, increased risk of heart attacks and disturbed sleep patterns. Reports in Indian cities show that noise levels are way beyond the permissible limits. Truly we are all horny.

Honking like other behaviour, over time, becomes a habit. And habits are essentially automatic behaviour where one does not consciously think about the action, but rather, the decision-making happens automatically. So we thought that it was important to shift the driver from an automatic mode of honking as a habit, to make him deliberate on whether the situation really demanded that he honk. We needed to make the driver conscious of the habit of honking by giving him immediate feedback while the driver was still driving the car, so that the next time the driver honked only when he thought it was necessary, rather than honk indiscriminately.

This approach led us to create a ‘Horn Reduction System’ we’ve called Bleep that has proved to reduce honking amongst each and every one of participants by an average of 61%.

Bleep – A horn reduction system

Bleep is a device with a simple red button fitted in an easily accessible place on the dashboard of a car. The red button has a frown sketched on it and when the driver presses the horn, the red button begins to beep and flash. In order to switch the device off, the driver needs to press the red button.

The 6-month long experiment

Bleep has been tested on manual and automatic geared cars amongst 30 people including men, women and chauffeurs of private vehicles, over 6 months and over 3800 kms. The participants were given either of two cars – manually geared Swift or automatic Honda City, with Bleep fitted, to be driven for 4 days during the working weekdays. Two days with Bleep off and the next two days with Bleep on, so that we could compare the number of honks per kilometer in the control situation (pre-Bleep) with the experimental situation (post-Bleep). Bleep has been tested as triggering off every time the horn is pressed, which is a stricter version in the manually geared Swift car, as well as triggering off every third time the horn is pressed, which is more lenient, in the automatic Honda City. In the first phase of the experiment the drivers were not given any information about the experiment. In the second phase they were simply shown how the system works.

The results

We have found a reduction in honking in each and every one of the participants wherein honks per km reduced between 19% to 96% (on an average by 62.5%) when Bleep was triggered every time the horn was pressed (stricter version). A reduction in honks per km was found between 16% to 91% (on an average by 60.3%) when Bleep was triggered every third time the horn was pressed (lenient version). These numbers prove that the reduction in honking relates to indiscriminate honking that drivers can do without.

The science of Bleep

The science behind the effectiveness of Bleep is that it assists the driver in reducing honking by using a visual-cum-sound reminder. The driver gets instant feedback when the red light with the frown beeps and flashes when he honks, making the driver conscious about his inappropriate behaviour of honking and making him deliberate about when he really required to honk. The driver having to physically switch off the reminder further helps in persuading him to honk lesser. The frown on the device is designed to indicate that honking is socially inappropriate behaviour. A study called ‘Overcoming Intuition’ done by Alter, Oppenheimer, Epley and Eyre has shown that frowning helps the brain reduce the reliance on intuition and activates analytical reasoning. Another research at the Stanford University School of Medicine has shown that peak brain activity (arresting attention) occurred during a short period of silence between musical movements, which is evidence that sounds that have a pause in between make you more alert. That’s why a seatbelt reminder like sound was used in the beep.

Bleep comes with many other unique features like recording, displaying and transmission of vehicle data like number of honks, speed at time of honk, location, time, etc., inside the vehicle or at a remote location and many other customised features. Patent pending.

Bleep has got featured in the Times of India (click here), Radio One 94.3 (click here), Top Gear India’s June issue and HT Mint (click here).

Brainstorms actually stifle creativity

Back in 1940s, advertising executive Alex Osborn argued that it was possible to enhance creativity by putting a group of people in a room and have them follow a simple set of rules, like coming up with as many thoughts as possible, encouraging wild and exaggerated ideas, not criticizing or evaluating anyone’s comments. Not surprisingly it became a hit. Over the years, organizations around the world have encouraged their employees to tackle key problems using this approach, commonly known as brainstorming.

But the scientists aren’t convinced. (Nor am I). Brian Mullen from the University of Kent at Canterbury and his colleagues analyzed twenty studies that tested efficacy of group brainstorming and discovered that in the vast majority of experiments, participants working on their own produced a higher quantity and quality of ideas than those working in groups.

The reason, group brainstorming fails, is because of a phenomenon called ‘social loafing’. Simply put it is diffusion of responsibility. When people work on their own, their success or failure is entirely due to their own abilities and hard work. If they do well, the glory is theirs. If they fail, they carry the can. However, add people to the situation and everyone stops trying so hard, safe in the knowledge that, though they will not receive personal praise if the group does well, they can always blame others if it performs badly.

Years of brainstorming may have inadvertently been stifling, not stimulating, creative juices. So have faith in yourself, work alone, regroup to discuss your ideas with your team and kick ass.

Self-portrait by Mayur Tekchandaney

The surprising psychology of waiting in queues

Waiting in queues can elicit powerful emotions in us. Stress. Boredom. The nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away. And of course we believe that the other line moves faster. While losing to the line at our left, drives us to despair, winning the race against the one to our right, does little to lift our spirits. We almost always fixate on the line we’re losing to and rarely the one we’re beating.

All of this makes for a lasting impression on your customers’ perception about your brand if you’re a hypermarket or a bank or an airline or any business whose business it is to serve people. So how does one tackle it?

Some years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero!

Occupied time (walking to baggage claim) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing at the carousel). “Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” says, M.I.T. operations researcher Richard Larson, considered to be the world’s foremost expert on lines.

Our expectations further affect how we feel about lines. Beating expectations buoys our mood. All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated, leave happier than those who wait longer than expected. This is why Disney, the universally acknowledged master of applied queuing psychology, overestimates wait times for rides, so that its guests (never customers, always guests) are pleasantly surprised when they ascend ‘Space Mountain’ ahead of schedule.

This is a powerful ploy because our memories of a queuing experience, are strongly influenced by the final moments, according to research conducted by Ziv Carmon, a professor of marketing at the business school Insead and the nobel-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. When a long wait ends on a happy note, we tend to look back on it positively, even if we were miserable much of the time. Conversely, if negative emotions dominate in the final minutes, our retrospective audit of the process will skew toward cynicism, even if the experience as a whole was relatively painless.

But the biggest influence on our perception of queues has got to be ‘fairness’: what you feel when someone jumps the queue. If you haven’t faced a situation like this yet in India, where jumping the queue is a survival skill, you must be a celebrity. Ranbir Kapoor did it when I was first in line for the application of an international driving license. He assumed it was ok for celebrities to break queues. So he simply smiled, said sorry but guess what, it worked!

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

What you wear can affect how you act

We feel confident when we wear good clothes, and may be not that confident when wearing clothes we feel not good enough. Seems intuitive. But did you know that if you wear a white coat that you believe belongs to a doctor, your ability to pay attention increases sharply. While if you wear the same white coat believing it belongs to a painter, you will show no such improvement.

Dr. Adam Galinsky, a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and his colleague Hoja Adam call this phenomenon ‘enclothed cognition’ to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. That’s a play off the term ‘embodied cognition’, a line of research that examines the ways bodily sensations influence our thoughts and emotions.

As a test of the ‘enclothed cognition’ perspective, their research explored the effects of wearing a lab coat on ordinary people. They had to look at two very similar pictures side by side on a screen and spot four minor differences. It was found that attention (finding more number of differences) did not increase when the coat was not worn or associated with a painter. Attention only increased when the coat was a) worn and b) associated with a doctor. The effect occurs only if you actually wear the coat and know its symbolic meaning — physicians tend to be careful, rigorous and good at paying attention.

“There is a huge body of work on embodied cognition”, says Dr. Galinsky. “The experience of washing your hands is associated with moral purity and ethical judgments. People rate others personally warmer if they hold a hot drink in their hand, and colder if they hold an iced drink. Other experiments have shown that women who dress in a masculine fashion during a job interview are more likely to be hired, and a teaching assistant who wears formal clothes is perceived as more intelligent than one who dresses more casually.”

Illustration by (now you don’t need to wear a labcoat for guessing that)

Stare at your own risk

Just glancing at a photo of a rich and gooey chocolate cake can set your brain circuits sparking, switching on cravings and revving up your appetite.

The proof is in the brain scans. Researchers found that when people stare at sugary treats, regions of the brain known to be involved in appetite control and pleasure and reward light up, according to the study presented at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society.

The new study parallels earlier research in cocaine addicts. When addicts were shown anti-drug commercials that included crossed-out needles, the brain regions associated with pleasure fired up and the addicts reported increased craving. Contrary to public health officials’ plans, only the needles registered in the addicts’ brains, not the big red Xs crossing them out.

Dr. Kathleen Page, a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California says “We see parallels between substances of abuse, like cocaine, and highly palatable foods. Some of the same brain regions light up.”

Page and her colleagues scanned brains of obese Hispanic women looking at images of alluring foods such as cupcakes, chocolate cake and chocolate chip cookies. “What we saw was that the regions of the brain that are involved in reward and hunger lit up,” Page said. The women, who were also asked to rate their appetite at the beginning and end of the experiment, reported greater hunger and desire for food after looking at the photos.

And in an intriguing second experiment, the researchers asked the women to each consume a sugary drink of approximately 200 calories. Then the researchers repeated the scans as before with the women looking at photos of tasty treats.

“Surprisingly, consumption of the sugar drink actually increased the ratings of hunger and desire,” Page said. “We didn’t predict a hunger increase with the sugar drink. Apparently the brain saw it as an appetizer.”

It’s not clear how average people can protect themselves from photos of tempting treats, Page said. And it’s funny, but when I conducted the studies and looked at the pictures myself, I was thinking, I could eat a piece of chocolate cake right now.

Feel like having one?

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Playing games could ease traffic congestions

Billions of hours, fuel and money gets wasted in traffic congestions. Though there has been some progress in the last few years in Mumbai with the starting of the Bandra-Worli sea-link and the fly-overs being built, there’s a strong feeling that it may not be enough. Take the case of Delhi. Delhi is most privileged to have more than 21 per cent of its geographical area under road space. Delhi has built the maximum roads and flyovers. Yet its roads are totally gridlocked. While the government has targeted to increase the usage of public transport from existing 40% to 80% by 2020, it will extremely difficult to curb the ‘status’ tag of cars.

Singapore has had the ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) system that charges extra dollars for using congested zones during peak hours. So do London and Stockholm. However congestion charging has come under criticism that it favours the rich and that it adversely affects retail businesses in the congested zone. So could gaming come to the rescue?

Two experimental transportation projects are under way in Singapore and Silicon Valley that aim to improve commutes through gaming. In one of the experiments, conducted by Balaji Prabhakar, a Stanford engineering professor, more than 17,500 Singapore commuters have enrolled. Participants in the Singapore program shift their commutes to off-peak hours to earn credits, which can be traded for a chance to win cash.

So rather than only punishing traveling in peak hours, this program also rewards traveling in non-peak hours.

Balaji Prabhakar said during a recent talk at the university’s campus in Palo Alto, California, that 11-12 percent of users in Singapore have shifted off-peak. Men tend to shift later, he said, while women generally shift earlier. He says that 11% might not seem much, but they’re enough to make a difference in traffic flow. He ran a successful project for employees of Infosys called INSTANT (Infosys-Stanford Traffic project) in Bangalore in 2008-2009 and is now running the project at Stanford University as well.

I’m wondering how this could be implemented in Mumbai as public transportation is neither electronically controlled nor linked to each other. However prices of public transport can be controlled manually. So imagine the ticket prices of road transport – bus, rickshaw, taxi and the sea-link like toll is increased by 25% in peak hours (8:30-10am and 6:00-7:30pm), but is also decreased by say, 10% during off-peak hours. Could it work?

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Does porn increase or decrease rape?

Pornography is illegal in India and is seen by most as something that is detrimental to society. Many people outside our country, like in the US (where pornography is legal) too believe it is detrimental to social order, contributing to the degradation of women and leading to rape and sexual assault or other sex related crimes. But there are others who argue the other way, saying that pornography is an expression of fantasy that provides pleasure and can act as a positive displacement activity for sexual aggression.

This debate as well as the increasing coverage of rapes in Indian media got us to research whether or not pornography led to sex related crimes and rapes. Here’s what we found:

Tons of research has been done on this. Quoting few of them here. Findings of Goldstein and Kant, 1973 found that rapists were more likely than non-rapists US prisoners, to have been punished for looking at pornography while a youngster. These two also found that strict, religious upbringing to be highly correlated with sexual offences. A 1984 Canadian study by McKay & Dolff for the Department of Justice of Canada reported, “There is no systematic evidence that suggests that increases in specific forms of deviant behaviour, reflected in crime tend statistics, eg. rape, are causally related to pornography.” Diamond and Uchiyama, 1999, studied the situation in Japan  – as explicit materials were readily available, the incidence of rape had dramatically decreased over the past few decades. Studies from Croatia by Landripet, Stulhofer & Diamond done in 2006 and of US and China done by Diamond also showed significant decreases in rape as pornography became increasingly available.

Reason sighted for this ‘Porn up, Rape down’ phenomenon is that, erotic inclinations to rape, flash, other sexually offensive behaviour, etc might have been used in real life encounters as a means of resolving a lustful inclination. The ready availability of pornography in contrast, may have facilitated a more convenient and more socially tolerable solution of masturbation.

Whether you agree to the above or not, here’s something to think about – when we express our opinion on pornography we think about its effect on others, not on ourselves. While we may not think that pornography is harmful or capable of inciting sexual offenses, we think it might have such an effect on others.

Source: Pornography, public acceptance and sex related crime: A review by Milton Diamond in International Journal of Law and Psychiatry

Illustration hidden by Mayur Tekchandaney

You should sleep over it

Warning: If you are a consultant you may not like this post, but if you are a client you are likely to love it.

That’s because solution providers don’t particularly like to hear the words ‘Let’s sleep over it’, but this phenomenon is proven to be good for complex cognitive skills like decision-making.

In one of the first studies of its kind, Dr. Rebecca Spencer and postdoctoral fellow Edward Pace-Schott investigated the effects of sleep on affect-guided decision-making, which is decisions on meaningful topics where subjects care about the outcome, in a group of 54 young adults. They were taught to play a card game called the Iowa Gambling Task, for rewards of play money in which wins and losses for various card decks mimic casino gambling.

The researchers gave two groups of 18- to 23-year-old college undergraduates a brief preview of the gambling task, so brief that it was not possible for them to learn its underlying rule. Subjects were then asked to come back in 12 hours. The 28 subjects who got the preview in the afternoon went home to a normal evening and their usual night of sleep, while the 26 who received the game preview in the morning came back after a day of normal activities with no naps. On the second visit, subjects played the full gambling task. (You can read the detailed study in the online issue of the Journal of Sleep Research)

Subjects who had a normal night’s sleep as part of the study drew from decks that gave them the greatest winnings four times more often than those who spent the 12-hour break awake, and they better understood the underlying rules of the game.

“There is something to be gained from taking a night to sleep over it when you’re facing an important decision. We found that the fact that you slept makes your decisions better.”, says Dr. Rebecca Spencer.

She believes this sleep benefit in making decisions may be due to changes in underlying emotional or cognitive processes. “Our guess is that this enhanced effect on decision-making is something that depends on rapid-eye-movement or REM sleep, which is the creative period of our sleep cycle.”

Not convinced? May be it’s a good idea for you to sleep over it.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

Words can work like drugs

Words have been known to have the power to affect behaviour change when used appropriately. As Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Here’s an interesting case that illustrates this point. Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author wanted to find out if it was possible to increase donations by creating the perfect charity box. He created four charity boxes. Each identical in shape and size, and all advertised the same charity – National Literacy Trust. He placed each box at one of the four randomly selected tills at the Borders bookstore, UK. Each carried a message that psychologists believed would be effective:

‘Please give generously’

‘Every penny helps’

‘Every pound helps’

‘You can make a difference’

Which one do you think collected the most amount of cash?

‘Every penny helps’ worked best, containing 62% of all contributions. ‘You can make a difference’ was at second place, ‘Please give generously’ at third and ‘Every pound helps’ was last at fourth place.

Why did this happen? According to work done by psychologist Robert Cialdini from Arizona State University, many people are concerned that putting a very small amount of money will make them look mean, so end up giving nothing at all. ‘Every penny helps’ legitimizes, and therefore encourages, the smallest of contributions. In contrast ‘Every pound helps’ had the reverse effect.

Meanwhile I thought I’d end the year with a tweet I read recently – ‘Do not worry about the past & the future. This moment needs your attention, this is where your life exists.’

Wish you Merry Christmas and a rocking 2013.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

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