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Wadala Experiment at WSMConference, Dublin

Earlier this month, we presented the Wadala Experiment Case Study at the World Social Marketing Conference in Dublin, Ireland. The 2nd World conference brought together an audience of 600 behavioural change experts from 40 different countries.


The Wadala Experiment was the only case study presented at WSMConference that drew on learnings from Cognitive Neuroscience and Behavioural Economics to tackle social problems (trespassing in Mumbai). Behaviour change in larger societal problems, including healthcare, savings, and road safety can benefit greatly if we change our thinking and approach these issues in a more fundamental manner.


With the success of the Wadala Experiment Case Study, we have demonstrated how Behaviour Architecture™ can be used effectively to bridge the gap between AWARENESS and ACTION, a point which most social marketers, and even consumer marketers, are grappling with today.

The sweet ingredient to making better decisions

If you have a parole hearing, when should you schedule your slot so that you get a favourable decision? The graph below might shed some light on that question.

In this graph, Shai Denziger captures the results of 1112 parole hearings in Israeli prisons over a ten-month period.


The vertical axis is the proportion of cases where the judges granted parole. The horizontal axis shows the order in which the cases were heard during the day. And the dotted lines, they represent the points where the judges went away for a morning snack and their lunch break.


What the graph shows is extremely noteworthy. At the start of the day, the odds that a prisoner will be successfully paroled is 65%, before nosediving to 0% within a matter of few hours. The judges take their first break (as shown by the dotted lines), and the successful odds climb up to 65%, before plummeting again. Ditto for the proportion of successful paroles after lunch.


Danziger found that the three prisoners seen at the start of each “session” were more likely to be paroled than the three who are seen at the end. That’s true regardless of the length of their sentence, or whether they had been incarcerated before.


Whether prisoners are let off or not could merely be a function of when their cases were heard.


An easy explanation to this could be the aspect of “choice overload”. In repetitive decision-making tasks, once we’ve drained our mental resources, we suffer from choice overload and start opting for the default choice.


For the judges, the more decisions they’ve made, the more depleted they are, and hence they end up making the default choice – in this case, deny parole.


But if we look at things more fundamentally, a clearer picture emerges. Glucose helps you make better decisions.


Glucose is the only fuel used by the brain cells for mental activity. Since the neurons don’t store glucose, they depend on the bloodstream to supply a constant amount of this fuel.


As the judges make more decisions, their brains are getting drained, thereby creating a propensity to look at more immediate decisions (getting back concentration and focus on the current task) rather than understanding the prisoner’s situation and taking appropriate decisions.


The implications of glucose on decision making and its effect as seen in judges’ decision making are huge.


The brain is an energy optimizing machine. Making decisions takes a lot of effort, and too many of them make us feel tired.


In organizations that demand lot of mental task from their employees, productivity can be increased by creating an environment that leads to making fewer decisions. Google is a frontrunner in recognizing this aspect and creates an environment that reduces distractions (thereby keeping glucose levels higher), because of which it’s employees go on to create things that Google is so well known for.


As erstwhile CEO Eric Schmidt put it…


“Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.”


This is a fundamental way of looking at how organizational productivity can be increased. If more companies start thinking in this manner, it can only open up doors for a new era in innovation, creating a happier bunch of employees who can then do whatever they do in the best

A storm in the brain

We are obviously talking about Brainstorming here. I guess most of us have been in some and walked out with a sense of accomplishment.  Since Alex F. Osborn, an Advertising Executive introduced this to us in 1953, it has made way in to all kinds of organizations. Of course, Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, has a different story and according to him ‘Brainstorming got its name from a method that was developed during the dark ages. The technique involved removing the brains of smart people and leaving them out in a storm. The storm-washed brains would then be beaten against flat stones and hung out to dry. Later they would be ironed to get the wrinkles out. After the freshly laundered brains were sown into their original skulls, the smart people would be expected to come up with great ideas. If they didn’t, it was proof they were witches” (The Joy of Work, 1998) On a serious note, Osborn proposed that we could get great ideas if we deferred judgement and focused on quantity. The world went about doing it although not entirely sticking to the process laid out by Osborn, Here is the interesting thing though, no study so far has proved that Osborn was right. Brainstorming has no scientific basis, even though many of us might feel that it works. In fact more studies have proven otherwise, that we generate more ideas as individuals as opposed to doing it in a group. Jonah Lehrer, in his latest book ‘Imagine: How creativity works’ talks about the inadequacies of Brainstorming as a creativity enhancing technique. There is now a growing body of evidence against the idea of this harmonious technique that discourages dissent and criticism. He cites the example of how Pixar completely reinvented the idea of brainstorming. At Pixar, dissent and criticism are encouraged. Bad ideas are torn apart, but one has to have a better solution, its not just about criticizing. You need to do 'plussing', take the idea you criticized and improve it or propose a better alternative. In most studies, including the first empirical study on brainstorming conducted at Yale in 1958, there is little evidence that brainstorming works as it is meant to. Of course, believers in brainstorming contest these findings. A study by Charlan Nemeth at UC-Berkeley found that criticism and dissent increased the number of ideas and interestingly, the process of idea generation continued long after the brainstorming session. This seems rather counter-intuitive. Criticism and Dissent lead to Anger and we have known to believe that anger can only be bad. This Scientific American article talks about the some of the positives of Anger. ( As always, such studies come with few riders.  Anger in moderation apparently boosts creativity. However prolonged anger isn’t very good for creativity. In the short run it increases our determination and resolve to demonstrate our capabilities it seems. Now what are the possible implications. Junking the idea of a brainstorm in its current form is a good start. However, we don’t want to get in to fist fights and increase enemies at the workplace. A good way is to build a culture where people are less sensitive to dissent and criticism. A boss who welcomes criticism and encourages dissent is a good start. If criticism and dissent are the norm, the people in the session should have trust in other people’s intentions and the maturity to not take this personally. This could pose a significant challenge. Its easy for people to take positions and get defensive. If we are serious about real creativity, these challenges need to be overcome. One way would be to have a strict screening mechanism and get the right kind of people in to the room to make this work. So, avoid the trouble makers and those who can’t handle a debate and criticism professionally. Equally keep out people who are unnecessarily nice. In its current form, brainstorming seems like an exercise designed to keep everyone satisfied by avoiding conflict and friction. Everyone behaves and everyone gets a medal! While this gives us a lot of comfort, it has no use beyond that. Come to think of it, expecting the spark of creativity without friction is counter-intuitive. And if you need further proof of the actual ‘benefits’ of brainstorming, this line by Scott Adams should do the trick. “This brainstorming process lost favor everywhere except in England, where it was credited over the years with creating such great ideas as warm beer, over-taxing the American colonies, poll tax and pissing off the Irish” I am sure this line makes the English people angry and may be that's a good thing! So, the next time you want to Brainstorm try to create that storm rather than chasing the calm.

Currency Of The Mind

In the recent past academic literature is abound with discussions around how classical economics is poor at explaining or predicting human behavior. For example, what explains Warren Buffett - spend a lifetime earning, only to give away his immense wealth to philanthropic causes one fine morning? And what happened to that elusive utility maximizing, self interested being whom we use to build our economic models? If Warren Buffett is an exception, let us look at ourselves and the world around us. We make new year resolutions only to break them the next week. We keep money in our savings account and take loans at higher interest rates or revolve debt on our credit cards. We swear to eat healthy only to binge on the sinful sundae that we just spotted on the menu. Some classify this behavior as “irrational”, almost accusing us of going against the rules - the rules set by economic models. But today we have a much better understanding of how the brain takes decisions and what it tries to achieve in the process, thanks to advances in Neuroscience. We now know that the currency of the mind is not money or economic utility, but emotions. We also know that the connection between emotion and motion is not just etymological, but a fundamental fact of the human (as also other animal) brain. Emotions drive us to action. What is more important, action that maximizes “Emotional Utility” and not necessarily Economic Utility. Seen in this light, most human behavior falls into place. It explains why we pay money to engage in adventure sports, chase inconsequential goals in online games, enjoy gambling, prefer spending time on facebook rather than more materialistic pursuits etc. If we appreciate this fundamental truth, we would have a much better understanding of what drives people to action. It will help design interventions that can influence behavior much far more effectively. And, perhaps governments and other social agents can attach more importance to things that matter most to societies. For starters, we would stop referring to societies as economies and stop measuring progress using the single, dry dimension of economic growth. Instead, we would focus a lot more on understanding the rich and colourful world of emotions and what maximises them. It will help us define well being, based on what is truly important to us.

Feel Unsafe ... To Be Safe

The blame game began in full force. The tragic incident at the AMRI hospital deserved it. Some of them sounded as follows ... “When government hospitals don't work private ones come in and of course they chase only profitability .... Where are the safety inspectors ... Government is busy spending on commonwealth to bother about spending on health care ... Safety inspectors are so lowly paid that they are easily bribable ... The character and morality of the country has gone to the dogs ... Doctors and staff were so selfish that they left the patients without any help ... Police had asked for basement clearance in July ... Fire department had warned the hospital authorities many months earlier”   Not sure what the helpless patients could have done to save their lives during the AMRI fire. But what could the staff have done? Why was the staff lax about safety measures? There must have been a safety officer. Why has he been careless right through? The answer is not just in better compliance, vigilance and policing. Of course these infrastructural issues must be resolved for better safety. In the meanwhile though, the bigger problem to solve is the overconfidence that seemingly safe environments breed in us. The problem with safety is - The more safe you feel the more unsafe it becomes. From a neuroscience perspective, our brain has a sort of Risk Thermostat. As the feeling of safety grows, the more adventurous and careless we get. Refer to the news a few days back on accidents on the palm beach road, in Vashi (greater Mumbai). One of the best roads in Mumbai. But again. One cannot escape the stupid thermostat. We compensate for the goodness of the road with over-speeding. The result. About 100 accidents on that road in the last 12 months with 19 fatalities. And to break this anomalous risk thermostat, there isn’t any thing better than the feeling of being Unsafe. Constant reminders of unfortunate possibilities. Ala the airline industry. Everyone wears the seat belts, without much complaining. More importantly, we haven’t been on a flight that hasn’t demonstrated safety measures. The best thing to happen to potentially dangerous environments, is the sense of danger and insecurity. That’s what will keep both us (the people) and them (staff/ authorities) vigilant. One case where we have successfully been able to apply this thinking and achieve great results is in the work we did in Mumbai to reduce trespassing deaths on Mumbai rail tracks. Need to make many more places in the world Feel Unsafe ... To Make them safe!   Picture Source: indiatimes

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