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What behavioral scientists are doing to improve urban living.
“Do you see the sets of traffic lights on either side?” says Anand Damani, pointing out a chaotic four-way junction from the balcony of his Mumbai apartment. Cars have stopped, blocking the pedestrian crossing. Both pedestrians and cars whose turn it is to move are stuck.
“There’s no need for two sets of signals at the same junction,” Damani points out. “Without an identical signal on the other side, drivers would stop at the right place so that they could retain a line of sight with the signal.”
People don’t change faulty behavior despite awareness, as humans are not rational beings. So you need new theories to change people’s behavior
Damani’s suggestion is simple, yet effective. One small change could make errant drivers do the right thing, without them even knowing it. But then he’s an expert. He is a behavioral scientist in a country where the field is yet to convince the government. “You don’t need to make people mindful to change their behavior,” Damani says. “Subconscious nudges through the environment also work. We call this behavioral design.”
Damani started a behavioral design firm, Briefcase, back in 2013, along with his partner Mayur Tekchandaney. Their first project, Bleep, aimed to reduce Mumbai’s rampant car horn honking problem.
Drivers reduced their honking by an average of 61%, because the buzzer was such a nuisance
The method was simple: over six months, Anand and his partner offered their own cars to participants to drive for a week. The vehicles were fitted with a buzzer that would light up and go off each time the driver pressed the horn and had to be manually switched off. It also recorded honking data that was used for analysis. The result: drivers reduced their honking by an average of 61%, because the buzzer was such a nuisance.
Damani describes Bleep as a simple, practical and low-cost solution to a big urban problem: noise pollution. “If the government wants to reduce noise levels in cities, it should make Bleep mandatory in all vehicles. We even installed it in the official vehicles of the Joint Transport Commissioner of Maharashtra, but it hasn’t moved further from there,” he says.
Beyond India other countries have been quicker to embrace behavioral design at government level. The UK, for instance, has a well-established, successful ‘nudge unit’, a public-private partnership called the Behavioural Insights Team. Its projects include helping persuade people to pay tax on time, increasing organ donor numbers and convincing students from low-income backgrounds to aim for top universities.
Meanwhile in the US the Obama administration created a similar unit, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (though it appears to have been mothballed by the Trump government). From helping people conserve electricity to suicide prevention, introducing subconscious ‘nudges’ has proved to be more efficient than the usual awareness campaigns that typically use logic to explain to people why they should or should not do something.
Take public transport, in Mumbai on average between nine and 10 people die each day from train-related accidents, many involving people taking a short-cut across train tracks. In 2010, the Indian Railways approached behavioral architecture firm, Final Mile, to find a way to reduce the deaths.
Among the experiments Final Mile conducted, one in particular grabbed the spotlight for its shocking grotesquery. At Mumbai’s Wadala station, which was notorious for deaths on the track, it put up big billboards with images showing the facial expressions of a man being run over by a train. The photos (which looked alarmingly real but were staged) were arranged in three panels, amplifying the horror. The experiments, which also included painting yellow lines on sleepers to help people gauge the speed of approaching trains, succeeded deterring people from crossing the tracks. The number of deaths at the station went from 40 in the year prior to the experiment to 10 after Final Mile’s measures.
“People don’t change faulty behavior despite awareness, as humans are not rational beings. So you need new theories to change people’s behavior,” says Biju Dominic, co-founder of Final Mile.
The idea that human beings are irrational goes against classical economics, which assumes that all decision-making is based on logic. It is the premise for behavioral economics, which also incorporates psychology and cognitive neuroscience into the discipline. In 2017, American economist and creator of the “nudge theory” Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his pioneering work in this new field. But is behavioral science as promising and innocuous as it seems? Could human irrationality also be exploited, not just manipulated?