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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.

Chemotherapy: How framing bias leads to wrong decisions in treatment of cancer

Source: LiveStrong by d.p.t. on flickr A recent article in ICNR raises fundamental questions on whether Chemotherapy has been oversold. Research done by 3 oncologists in Australia and the US published in the Australian Journal Clinical Oncology titled "The Contribution of Cytotoxic Chemotherapy to 5-year Survival in Adult Malignancies" found that chemotherapy contributes just over 2 percent to improved survival in cancer patients. Why then are well meaning doctors making the mistake of prescribing their patients with wrong treatment regimen? Brain's ability to understand and process complex information is quite poor and how the situation is framed would lead to decisions that are not entirely rational. In this case, the results of oncology treatments were framed as relative risk and not as absolute risk as pointed out by the authors.
For example, oncologists frequently express the benefits of chemotherapy in terms of what is called "relative risk" rather than giving a straight assessment of the likely impact on overall survival. Relative risk is a statistical means of expressing the benefit of receiving a medical intervention in a way that, while technically accurate, has the effect of making the intervention look considerably more beneficial than it truly is.
If receiving a treatment causes a patient's risk to drop from 4 percent to 2 percent, this can be expressed as a decrease in relative risk of 50 percent. On face value that sounds good. But another, equally valid way of expressing this is to say that it offers a 2 percent reduction in absolute risk, which is less likely to convince patients to take the treatment.
Experiments done by Kahneman & Tversky establish how the brain processes losses and gains differently and thus leading to different decisions. The following experiment conducted amongst a large sample of physicians illustrates this behaviour.
The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: – If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. – If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?
72 percent of those physicians who took part in the experiment chose option A, which was seen as a safe option. But look at what happens when the same probability is framed differently.
The U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: – If program C is adopted, 400 people will die – If program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. Which of the two programs would you favor?
Only 22 percent in this case chose option C and the remaining 78 percent chose option D. When the problem is framed in terms of losses rather than gains, the decision changed, though the probability of survival is just the same. While this is completely irrational behaviour, it is systematic and hence predictable and repeatable because of the way our brain is wired. This understanding opens up interesting possibilities in influencing social behaviour in ways that are favourable to society and thus more effective application of government spending.

Of football fouls and fluency

Imagine a circle pushing a square. If you imagined the circle on the left attempting to move the square on the right, then, like most of us, you’re probably fallible to the left-to-right motion perceptual-motor bias. Fluency, or a sense of ease, affects judgements and hence the decisions we take. We’ve all felt that slight discomfort with some of the choices we are considering while making a decision. Consider the perceptual-motor bias concerning movement from left to right. We are more comfortable with motion towards the right than towards the left. Goals scored from the left-to-right in football, for example, are rated as more beautiful than the goals scored from right-to-left. Developing this natural preference probably arises on account of our language being left to right dominant. The way we read, write and conceptualize time and events in space are all from left-to-right. Accordingly, movement towards the right feels natural, whereas there is a sense of unease when it comes to leftward motion. Sports fans, imagine the implication! A clever study by Kranjec et al. (2010) suggests that this bias might be strongly at play, excuse the pun, when football referees call fouls. They showed that members of their university football team were more likely to call a foul when they saw pictures of players moving towards the left as opposed to players moving towards the right, even though it was the same picture, inverted. Their natural unease with the direction of the movement increased the probability of it being called a foul. The bias also works the other way - fewer fouls would be called in the left-to-right direction as we naturally prefer that movement. The implications are huge - penalty kicks win and lose matches. They add that this bias has been put to good use in the past by film-makers, if not anyone else. The movie Apocalypse Now shows the whole crew moving into the jungle leftward serving to heighten the discomfort viewers felt while watching the movie. In movies and plays, bad guys would enter the screen from the right whereas good guys would enter from the left. We mentioned before that readers of left-right written language are prone to this bias. Kranjec et al. (2010) also say that there is evidence to prove that readers of languages written from right-to-left develop perceptual preferences accordingly. For example, those who write and think in Hebrew and Arabic represent events from right-to-left.  This could have implications in many other fields as well. Take for instance, safety. It can be hypothesized that we might unconsciously be a little more careful with traffic approaching from the right due to this in-built discomfort. Correspondingly, we are probably  a little more lax about traffic coming in from the left. Definitely worth thinking about the ramifications this low-level perceptual bias has on various aspects of everyday life. - with inputs from Tasneem Chhatrisa. Image Source -

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