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:

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“ 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)