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Saturday, November 30, 2013

HORN NOT OK PLEASE Whether it’s to curb honking and spitting or increase adherence to TB drugs, experts are using behaviour science to break society’s bad habits

 Afew weeks ago, a small red button was installed in the Maharashtra State Transport joint commissioner's official car. The plan is to install this red button — that beeps and flashes every third time the car horn is used and has to be manually switched off by the driver — in all official cars of the department. If Project Bleep works, this will solve one of the most maddening problems in urban India — honking. 

    Anand Damani and Mayur Tekchandaney, partners at Briefcase, a Mumbaibased branding and behavioural design agency, observed that honking, quite 
often, was a habit and not a necessity. So, they built Bleep, the button. Tests found that it reduced honking by an average of 61%. Bleep may go from Mumbai to Manhattan, with the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission expressing interest. The Commission finds it hard to control honking in the city because 
most of the drivers are from the Indian subcontinent. Damani says that most people don't even realize that they honk unnecessarily, and the button reminds them that it is a needless activity, leading to more deliberate use. 
    What Damani is talking about is a behaviour intervention. Simply put, it is the use of science to change behavior. How do you stop people from spitting, littering or driving on the wrong side of the road? How do you make people use public toilets or transport? Enter behaviour analysis which is changing the way policymakers are designing public 
schemes, the way politicians are electioneering, the way companies are selling products and services, and the way the social sector is tackling problems. Though India is far behind the governments of US and UK, which have official behavioural analysis units, there is increasing understanding of the need to include it in the way decisions are made for the masses. Advances in brain imaging and allied medical technologies, new courses at leading universities and the on-field success of behavioural economics in the past few years have also inspired much of this movement. 
    Understanding human behaviour is about breaking down the complex web of motivations, fears, doubts, misconceptions and beliefs behind an action — cracking the mystery of the 'why' we do what we do. And FinalMile, a Mumbai-based behaviour architecture consulting firm, is puzzling over many of these "whys" – why don't people finish their TB medication, why do they spit, why don't they stop at railway crossings or use contraception? 

Irrational beings 
The premise that behaviour economics does away with is that human beings are rational. They are not. The last financial crisis of 2008, in fact, pushed home the belief that people take irrational decisions, which often endanger their physical, mental and financial health. Ram Prasad, co-founder of FinalMile, says, "We think that people are rational and have time to make their own decisions — big mistake. Many of our actions are short cuts or unconscious decisions." Damani and Tekchandaney, in fact, started their behaviour design department late last year because they understood the inefficacies of traditional advertising. 
    One of the first social problems FinalMile tackled was death on train tracks. Through six months of observa
tional research (videography, observing crowds, talking to motormen, accident witnesses etc) the team saw behaviour patterns. "One was that people were quite overconfident even though they said they feared trains, they would still see one and cross. Warning systems were not making any impact. So we knew that we had to improve the trespassers' judgment because we can't stop them from crossing tracks," says Prasad. 
    They also realized that text is meaningless. So they used emotion in the signage (photos of a man being hit by a train) because writing "danger" and feeling danger are different. The feeling of danger made people take more conservative decisions. They also used yellowcoloured sleepers on the tracks at certain distances so that people can judge the speed of the train better, put up whistle signs at spots where people pay attention 
and also changed the tone of the whistle to one that grabs more attention. 
    This experiment at Wadala led to a reduction in track deaths from 40 fatalities in 2009-10 to 10 in 2010-11. The experiment led to a 40-70% reduction in fatalities in other locations. Now, the railways have asked them to look at accidents at unmanned railway crossings. 
    Other sticky urban problems from spitting to traffic chaos to gender imbalance in public spaces have also attracted the attention of behaviour specialists. Vandana Vasudevan, author of "Urban Villager: Life in an Indian Satellite Town" says, "In urban life, there are several aspects in which India needs behavioural change. I have a personal theory on what makes India a large trash can and this is consistently borne out by my observations of daily life whenever I am in the West — all the countries where public space is clean, people's patriotism is not notional but real and practical. They think of their country as though it was one large home." In fact, one of FinalMile's solutions was to ensure that public spaces such as staircases (permanent spitting areas) have the same look as the indoor space to give it a seamless appearance. 
Can't judge long-term risks 
Understandably, behaviour analysts are in great demand in the social sector, mainly because of the magnitude of most social problems as well as the spectacular failure of direct messaging. "There has been a realization that in spite of a lot of awareness and education, behaviour was not changing in key areas like public health, environment, public safety," says Paolo Mefalopulos, chief of communication for development, UNICEF India. 
    Prasad says that though most of the initial interest in behavioural change came from the commercial sector, the social sec
tor is now sizeable T he team has worked on one of the most pressing health issues India faces today — multi drug resistant tu berculosis (MDR TB) which happens when people stop taking their TB medication. "We found that patients start feeling better and stop taking the medication. But they tell the doctor that they are still taking it, because they don't feel the danger any more. And though six months seems definitive (length of the course), it doesn't seem so to patients They lose track and have no sense of progress. Behaviour economics suggests that we are poor at judging long-terms risks i.e. MDR TB," says Prasad. The team has developed solutions — each patient gets medicine box or a calendar to tick off months and have a sense of progress, stick a photo of how sick he was when he started on the box, and make the pills look visually different for each month. FinalMile, which devotes 20% of its time on pro bono work is now waiting for these to be implemented 
    Some political parties have also approached the agency for advice on pre dictability of behavior but this hasn't trans lated to a project yet. Politics and behaviour scientists are, of course, an intuitive match After all, which politician would not want judge behaviour patterns better? Obama' last election campaign had a consortium of behavioural scientists advising it. 
Like the path of least resistance 
The government is also taking baby steps in trying to include this field in policy making. The Planning Commission has made FinalMile a partner in the India Backbone Implementation Network to understand why different government agencies don't collaborate and cooperate 
    India's new National Pension System (NPS) has also taken a cue from behavior economics by introducing the auto de fault. Human behavior veers towards the path of least resistance or the "default choice". As Richard Thaler and Cass Sun stein say in "Nudge" — If for a given choice, there is a default or auto-choice option then we can expect a large number of people to end up with that option. The NPS, therefore, says that "in case you do not want to exercise a choice, your mon ey will be invested as per the "Auto Choice" option…" This is significant be cause studies also say that a default plan increases number of investors because with more options the process becomes more confusing and difficult and some people refuse to choose at all. 
    The work of behaviour specialists can give them a halo. After all, the abil ity to make people do one's bidding is no mean one. But as Prasad knows very well, the field is fraught with frustra tions and failures. He says, "Initially, the frustrations are pretty obvious. We kept thinking that 'all this guy had to was wear a seatbelt' etc but trying to decode people for the past several years has opened us up to empathy. And when you know more about why someone does something, there is less space for annoyance."

To deter people from crossing the tracks, researchers created signages that used emotion rather than text. Writing "danger" and feeling danger were different, they felt

HEAR, HEAR: Most people don't realize that they honk unnecessarily, and the button reminds them to use it more deliberately


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