Nudges can backfire…

In  Sweden we have an alcohol monopoly, where only the store called Systembolaget is allowed to sell alcohol. Stated at Systembolagets webpage, it exists for one reason: “To minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive.” During Christmas this year, they have a campaign with a message on their plastic bags stated as follows:

Bildtillblogpost4

“ The fact that we are the only one that sells beer, wine and liquor is a bit uncomfortable for you. But this is what you contribute to this year:

About 2000 saved lives

About 20 000 less violence crime

About 11 million less sick days”

Now… From a behavioural perspective, how does this make you feel? Perhaps I’m the only one, but this text actually puts me in a mood that make me feel – Yay, I just bought something for a good cause! Great, this justifies my alcohol shopping… Well, let’s be frank, I don’t think that’s the intention with the message.

Research led by Prof. Robert Cildini at Arizona State University proves that nudges can indeed backfire. In a national park, the research team tried to stop people from stealing petrified wood by posting: “Many past visitors have removed wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest”. But, with this warning, theft rates still stood high. So they changed the sign: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”. Surprisingly, this warning influenced theft – but not in the intended direction: stealing jumped from 5 percent to almost 8 percent. The researchers concluded that the message people received was not “don’t steel the petrified wood” but rather “Stealing petrified wood is a common and socially acceptable behaviour.” This research proves that the intended effect the nudges can truly backfire. It emphasizes (as always) the importance of experimental testing thus, behavioural response to nudges can be unpredictable and very context depended.

I assume, that the intentions behind Systembolagets campaign are in line with the reason of why they exist, again: “To minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive.” Maybe the campaign does work, we don’t know, as it’s most likely not tested.

But… According to me, from a behavioural perspective this is not a responsible campaign as it gives you a positive feedback holding a bag of alcohol. Hypothetically, this type of nudge may backfire making consumption of alcohol unintentionally justified as a good cause and consequently increase those numbers stated on the bag for next year…

merry christmas from systembolaget

“Systembolaget wishes you a very merry christmas”……

Reference:

Cialdini, R. B., Demaine, L. J., Sagarin, B. J., Barrett, D. W., Rhoads, K., & Winter, P. L. (2006). Managing social norms for persuasive impact. Social influence, 1(1), 3-15.

 

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Could nudging bridge equality gaps?

 

In Sweden, only about 2.4 % of total CEOs in listed companies are female (SCB, 2014). In fact, there are more male CEOs named Johan than there are CEOs who are female. Still, women educate themselves to a greater extent and in addition even manage their studies better than men. So, It is not fair that there are so incredibly few female CEOs even though they actually have the right skills for the job. One contributing factor that is likely to induce this equality gap is the gender bias. E.g. we are much more likely to implicitly think CEO – men, and Nurse – female. Or, when you first saw the picture above – what was your response? You probably thought of something relating to boys and girls and colour of the babies clothes – although the picture doesn’t even explicitly say that the babies are a boy and a girl. Still, that was your association. As we are not exposed of seeing females as CEOs or men as nurses, our sub-conscious won’t either.

Evidence suggests that the gender bias is automatically activated as soon as evaluators in hiring processes learn the sex of a candidate. Moreover, it may lead to unintentional discrimination rather than objective judgment. It happens that the recruiter is under the influence of gender bias and unconsciously ascribes group stereotypes to the candidate.

Harvard University researchers (Bohnet et al., 2012) showed in an experimental study some interesting implications regarding gender bias and the hiring process. They imply that gender bias played a role when determine positions that women and men were judged to be qualified for. The study builds on insights from prospect theory that our mind tends to make relative judgments rather than absolute judgments. E.g. whether you think your coffee tastes good – depends on what coffee you have drunk before. It is very hard to calibrate if it is a “nice cup of coffee” if you have nothing to compare it to, you base your judgment on whatever comes to mind.

When it comes to hiring and promotions for upper management positions (such as CEOs), these decisions are often done one at a time or as a separate evaluation. Therefore, the authors wanted to test if the candidates were evaluated differently in groups, where they could be comparatively judged. The study involved 654 participants (men and female); 100 played the role of candidates seeking new positions and the rest played the role of employers. The candidates performed math and verbal tasks, activities that according to the authors could trigger gender bias, as females are believed to be worse at math tasks and better at verbal tasks than males. The employers subsequently were asked to choose which candidates were qualified to go on to a second round of competence tests.

In the separate evaluation, employers chose men over equally qualified women for a male-stereotypical assignment. In fact, they even preferred lower qualified men for male-stereotypical assignments to higher performing women for the task. Likewise, the employers preferred woman to equally qualified men for female-stereotypical assignments. However, tested in a joint evaluation, where the decision-making environment showed information about performance of both male and female candidates, the gender gap disappeared.

The study therefore proposes that evaluating candidates in groups or in joint evaluations can mitigate the gender bias. It enables the recruiter to compare candidates, which increases the likelihood that employers would assess them based on their performance and potential, rather than gender stereotypes.

Equality gaps are structural complex problems that need to be ambushed from many different angles. This type of “evaluation nudge” mentioned above is one of many tools that may be effective. I think that by being aware of equlity biases such as the gender bias, and understand why they are there, that your association (sometimes an image or a feeling) is there because you have been exposed to that link frequently (e.g. that girls babies might wear pink more frequently than boys) you might at least be one step closer at building the bridge over equality gaps.

Whether it is unintentional or not, we are all prejudices. We make certain associations, cognitive shortcuts through things that we have seen, heard or believed in our lives. If society is custom in a certain way, our mind tend to follow its path which sometimes lead us to unconsciousness discriminating misjudgments. For an eye-opener, I strongly recommend you to do som Implicit Association Tests (IAT) here. Most of you will then realize – seeing is sometimes unconsciousness believing. Be aware that your brain takes these shortcuts, which sometimes makes you unintentionally prejudice, racist and gender discriminating. If you are aware of these biases and when they occur – you can actively work against them and hopefully even change the associations that they bring.

References

Bohnet, I., Van Geen, A. V., & Bazerman, M. H. (2012). When performance trumps gender bias: Joint versus separate evaluation. HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP12-009, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Statistiska Centralbyrån (SCB). Kvinnor och män i arbetslivet, 2013, available on the internet at: http://www.scb.se/Statistik/_Publikationer/LE0201_2013A01_BR_LE0201BR1301.pdf  (last accessed on 24 November 2014)

Looks don’t matter! The case of popcorn and more…

Too much Popcorn?

 

To give a short answer to that question if looks matter:

YES THEY DO

If that does not satisfy you, read on, I will delve deeper into why appearance (looks) do matter. For the record, I am talking here about product ‘looks’ although much of what is said could also be applied to the way we ourselves and other people look. But no  need to cramp it all into one single post.

LOOKS NUDGE

And there is nothing we can do about it?

A bold statement but it is true. A few striking examples are:

  • We tend to eat more popcorn if we’re given a bigger amount of it. In fact, this is true regardless if the popcorn is nice or of bad quality. The thing is, we like to think that we only over-eat because we actually enjoy the things we eat, but in fact, we over-eat because we simply get more. Is it that simple? In a study by Wansink and Kim (2005) it was. They provided Philidelphian moviegoers with medium or large sized containers of free popcorn, half of them were stale, the other half was crispy fresh. The first finding was that people actually eat more popcorn if they get larger containers. This is already rather remarkable, why would we eat more simply because there is more? But it is in human nature to use the resources we have avilable, so OK. What is more remarkable, however, is that, regardless of taste, we eat more. Those with crispy popcorn ate 45 % more popcorn when given large containers, but those who ate stale popcorn also ate more popcorn (33 %) given large containers. The conclusion: we do not eat more because we like it, but because we have more of it available.

Sidenote: as Wansink and kim suggest, we can ‘use’ this trick as well to benefit society, simply by increasing the portion sizes of healthful food, like snack carrots.

  • On the same topic, Wansink (and Ittersum, 2013) did another study on plate sizes. They found that the size of plates is a visual ‘cue’ for us humans from which we conclude how much food we’re supposed to take. For instance, in a Chinese buffet restaurant, larger plates amounted to people serving themselves 52 % more food, eating 45 % more and wasting 135 % more food in total compared to using smaller plates. A similar study was done by Kallbekken & Saelen in hotel restaurants. They found a staggering drop of 20 % of food waste just by reducing plate size and the social cues accompanying the filling of plates (they basically encouraged people to take less in single goes, but come back more often, thus making the portions people take more suited for their eventual consumption).

Sidenote: these examples show excellently how nudges (like small changes in plate sizes) can benefit all actors in the game. People eat less, which is generally in their health benefit, restaurant owners have to spend less money on food that is simply being wasted anyway, and the environment benefits as well because less waste is in general a relief for all involved ecosystems (nowadays the global landscape).

  • A third striking example is that of detergents. Not so much detergents themselves, but their packaging, to be clear. The package matters in terms of quality of detergents. No matter what detergent is really in the package… People were given detergents in either all blue, all yellow, or blue & yellow packages and consequently asked about the quality of said detergents. Subjects were pretty much convinced that the blue & yellow packaged detergent was by far the best one (of course it wasn’t, it was exactly the same detergent as in the other packages). What’s more, people named all sorts of reasons for this detergent being better, anything but that they liked the package more. In fact, they liked it more because of the package, but no one really consciously knew this.

Sidenote: This study was done some while ago (Packard, 1957) but the importance of packaging and colours has been proven time and time again. In fact, I bet that subconsciously you are ‘aware’ that light products are very often packaged in light blue tints, and packaging often takes colour ‘inspiration’ from the product it contains. Butter packages are often golden, as the butter itself (or so an ideal butter would be). What does the package colour contribute to the product? Nothing! Yet it still makes us more prone to buy a golden package than a black one, when we are buying butter. When we’re buying Heinz tomato ketchup, we will look for red (unless we want the one with reduced calories!). This is not really a conscious effort, although it is not hidden either, once could possibly think about this if one wanted to. Hence, this ‘nudge’ of the physical environment does not force anyone to go for a certain gold-coloured package, it simply nudges us. It signals to us “this package contains an equally golden product”.

The point made with these illustrations (and many others not mentioned here) is that looks matter. Not only that, looks are always there, and so there really is not at all a ‘questionable debate’ about whether we should or shouldn’t nudge. Unless we plan to sell butter and detergents without package all together, that is, we will always need a package and so a ‘choice architecture’. The question remains only, ‘how’ should we use packaging. To the benefit of only the seller, or also to the benefit of the consumer and the environment?

 

 

Sources: 

“Bad Popcorn in Big Buckets: Portion Size Can Influence Intake as Much as Taste, “ Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2005, 37:5 (Sept-Oct), 242-5, Brian Wansink and Junyong Kim.

“Portion Size Me: Downsizing Our Consumption Norms,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2007, 107:7 (July), 1103-1106, Brian Wansink and Koert van Ittersum.

“Nudging’ hotel guests to reduce food waste as a win-win environmental measure”. Economics Letters,2 2013, 119 (3): pp. 325-327.Kallbekken, Steffen and Håkon Sælen, 2013.

“The hidden persuaders”, Vance Packard, as read in “Subliminal” by  Leonard Mlodinow (p. 23) Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012

The Economic (Super)man vs. HomER economicus

With this blog post, I intend to give a (very) brief taste for newbies to the field of behavioural economics. And by that – lets start by talking about some standard economic theory and a rarity of man called Homo Economicus. Homo economicus is a very rational man who carefully weighs cost and benefits and is well-informed by his existing preferences – that is, he computes the values of all the options he faces, and then follows the best possible path of choice. We can also call him superman – hrmhrm, minus the fact that he only maximizes utility in his choices with regard to his own self-interest. This self-interested Superman (nope, he doesn’t sound very charming at all) is what standard economic theory assumes we are as humans. Subsequently, it is also what standard policy tools (e.g. taxes, subsidies, bans & regulations) that target human behaviour are based on.

However, we all now that we as humans are not always rational in our choices. A substantial body of research proves that we are very much influenced by limited cognitive resources, incomplete information and heuristics that lead to systematic deviations from our “rational” choice. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that humans rely on which though to simplify judgemental operations. These heuristics are in general quite useful (it helps you to not being forced actively reflect on every little single bit action you do), but also quite often they lead to severe cognitive biases. Biases that reasons in a way, which is not in accordance with norms of logic and probability. Let’s give you one of the behaviour economics guru Daniel Kahnemans’s favourite examples of how a cognitive bias can occur (although I Swedishonized the version a bit):

An individual in Sweden has been described by a neighbour as follows: Veronika is a very shy and withdrawn person but always helpful to people. She has a passion for reading books and is a very tidy soul with a detail for order and structure. Is Veronika more likely to be a librarian or a doctor?

Now, most people’s first intuitive thought or image that pops up into their mind is that Veronika is a librarian. Surely, this is because Veronika resembles a librarian more than a doctor. But, what “rational” people first should think of is that there are almost ten times more doctors than librarians in Sweden – hence Veronika is more likely to be a doctor. This example is just one out of MANY that proves that we deviates from Mr. Rational Superman.

In fact, we are far more complex than just being rational and therefore behavioural economists rather call us humans HomER economicus. For example, we tend to postpone things that we rather would like to be done with, have unhealthy living habits where we smoke, eat too much and exercise to little and – we consume beyond the planet’s capacity to recover. Therefore, in the area of public policy-making and tools that are based on biased assumptions – the intended effect may lead to failures. Behaviour economics, and in particular nudging, which recently has become a field within applied behavioural economics, is all about understanding these failures in order to change human behaviour.

Applied behavioural economics acknowledge the importance of having an interdisciplinary evidence-based approach using economic with insights from psychology. It emphasizes the role of analyze and test (often via experiments) in order to reveal if the policy intervention actually reached an intended effect on human behaviour. In conclusion, the purpose with this blog – as Britt mentioned in her previous post is NOT to say that “nudging” is the solution of all problems – but to spur an open debate about use of it as a tool with the aim of increasing “good” behaviour in Sweden. Nevertheless, not all nudges are good nudges – nudging is a powerful tool and can be harmful if being used in the wrong hands. But a debate about the ethics of nudging requires much more space than what I will dedicate this post – we’ll save that discussion for an upcoming one!

For those of you how had no clue what behavioural economics is about – hopefully this post gave you a teaser about it and why we should look at policy through a evidence-based behavioural lens.

Over and out!

On the behalf of the Swedish nudging team,

Linda

Ps.. Oh, and to be clear – I only shared a glance from my own head in this post. For a more comprehensive understanding I suggest you to dig deeper in to the literature. We will soon provide a reading – and watching list for those who are interested in knowing more!