Nudge of the Month

App(lication)s of Behavioral Economics

By Francesco Amighetti and Beatrice Del Frate

The core principle that is at the heart of the nudge theory is that “change comes not from the inside, but the outside”, as clearly expressed by Dan Ariely – professor of psychology and behavioral economics and director of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. For this reason, the great majority of nudge interventions consists in the re-shaping of the environment where crucial choices have to take place. 

However, as the world and technology are constantly developing, so are the ways of implementing nudges. In days where everyone owns a smartphone and constantly uses it, a new and functional possibility to nudge without having to impact the outer environment comes precisely from smartphone apps. In fact, a large number of apps are nowadays being developed with insights from Behavioral Science, which contribute to make the apps we use smarter and more useful. These apps, in turn, help us behave in a smarter way in different aspects of our lives. 

Two interesting examples concern the issues of following medical therapies more closely and saving more money. In both cases, choices are bound to our innate cognitive limitation in dealing with intertemporal choices, which makes it difficult for us to follow a greater goal in the future at the expense of a smaller but instant reward. Let’s see how apps can tackle  this issue.

thinking.95f2e4b8

 

A health-saving app: Wellth

According to the World Health Organization, patient nonadherence to therapy is a worldwide problem that should be taken seriously into consideration. 45% of the US population suffer from chronic pathologies and in developed countries only 50% of those patients take the medication they have been prescribed. Nonadherence is a costly issue: in the US it is estimated to cause 125.000 deaths every year and a national cash outflow of $289 billion.

While pervasiveness of technology and its user-friendliness are often exploited to improve healthcare services and their outcomes, behavioural economics innovations have been introduced only recently to tackle these problems. Wellth, a start-up based in Brooklyn, is a smartphone app that highlighted the opportunities coming from the connection between these two concepts.

Designed especially for heart attack post-discharge adherence, daily weight monitoring, diabetes care-plans adherence, and lung diseases self-management, Wellth combines technology with behavioural economics, leveraging financial loss incentives in order to change patients’ behaviour.

How does it work? The hospital deposits $150 into your account as soon as you start to follow your medication plan. Every day for 3 months, Wellth sends you reminders and monitors your adherence using the camera (e.g. taking a snap of you taking the pills). Any time you do not comply with the plan, you lose $2 per day.

In spite of appearing trivial at first glance, it brings consistent results: developers claimed that it is possible to obtain a 40% or better reduction to readmissions through the app, leading to higher-level patient satisfaction and greater cost savings for both patients and healthcare companies.

 

Wellth

 

A money-saving app: Qapital

Everyone wants to save money. But, everyone also finds it almost impossible to do so. Qapital is a Swedish startup that has developed an interesting app for this reason, with the investment and counseling of professor Ariely himself.

How does it work? The idea behind the app is simple: make something difficult easy and fun. More precisely, Qapital makes you save “just by doing the things you do”. In practice, this means that the act of saving is transferred into daily activities.

It all starts with setting a goal and the money needed for it, as a way to keep motivated. Afterwards, the app – which is connected with users’ credit cards – makes you set saving rules: mechanisms that allow the app itself to keep and save a set amount of money whenever performing a given action. For example, the “round up rule” saves 75 cents for every $2.25 spent for a bus ticket; the “spend less rule” asks you to spend less than $20 at Starbucks per week and keeps the rest as saving; the “guilty pleasure rule” holds extra money back whenever food is ordered online; and so on. Of course, rules are customizable in order to adjust to everyone’s daily habits and routine.

In practice, what Qapital does is nudging to break down a large saving into smaller day by day savings. In this way, it tackles the problem of intertemporal choice by making the goal closer and more achievable. It also reshapes the psychological perception of the act of saving itself, which goes from being an effort that requires great self-control to being something within everyone’s reach. 

Quapital

Sources:

https://wellthapp.com/home

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/upshot/answer-to-better-health-care-behavioral-economics.html

https://aha-365.ascendeventmedia.com/2016/epost2/technology-helping-to-advance-treatment-of-patients/

http://www.who.int/chp/knowledge/publications/adherence_report/en/

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/11/savings-app-behavioral-economist/414522/

https://www.qapital.com/

 

 

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Nudge of the Month

Good Resolutions and How to Keep Them

By Beatrice Del Frate and Francesco Amighetti

Christmas holidays represent a good moment to spend time with family and friends and to escape from routine. After majestic meals and never-ending celebrations, the onset of the new year is always accompanied by a list of desires, very likely the ones we had the previous year. Probably one of the most common wishes is to finally obtain that so much desired beach-body.

Obviously, immediate solutions might be to have a gym membership or to go to the swimming pool. Nevertheless, if you are starting from a period of prolonged inactivity, it may be better for you to begin with smaller steps…literally! A common suggestion for maintaining resolutions is to decompose bigger goals into smaller sets of sub-goals that are easier to achieve. To maintain the goal of becoming more active in the next year (and hopefully lose weight in the process), it may be helpful to keep in mind that there are also smaller and simpler gestures that can have a huge physical impact in the long run: this is the case of taking stairs whenever there is the chance.

Jan1

Luckily for us, nudges can help do this without much thinking. Stairs nudging is one of the most famous nudge cases: it is simple to implement and monitor and it has a high degree of effectiveness. Principally, stairs are made more attractive through bright colours and visual signals, and/or through motivational quotes and messages (like the calories burned for each step). Here are some creative and smart examples.

Catching the underground?

Redesigning of stairs in metro station is one of the most common and fun ways to implement this kind of nudge, usually done by city associations or temporary sponsors.

For example, in Lyon, in 2016, Pep’s association monitored a  350% increase in the number of stairs users simply by making metro station stairs more captivating. They used a colourful floral design and a simple but clear message: “Your good health is at the end of this staircase”. Furthermore, what they experienced is that people reported a higher intention to take the stairs again if confronted with the same choice in the future.

Jan2

During the same year in Hamburg the stairs of the metro station have been painted like an athletics red track, in order to publicize the Hamburg 2024 Marathon and consequently to incentivize the use of the stairs by travellers. Unfortunately, in this case no data have been collected, but given results from previous studies, it is likely to have been effective.

Jan3

 

Or catching a flight?

A very recent study conducted by Dr. J. Bellettiere and colleagues, published in December 2017, tested the effectiveness of stair nudges in a different context: San Diego International Airport.

For 22 days, the team introduced five signs with different messages at the starting point of the stairs and the escalators. The messages were the following: “Please reserve the escalator for those who need it.”, “Don’t lose time, lose weight. Use the Stairs.”, “Don’t waste Time, trim your Waistline. Use the Stairs.”, “You’ll get more stares if you use the stairs.”, and “If you want to feel younger, act younger. Step it up! Use the stairs.”. The messages were alternated for ten days, and between each a “no sign day” was added as control. Moreover, the subjects were stopped and asked to fill in a survey about their physical habits.

Jan4

The results showed that the signs doubled the number of people that decided to take the stairs (despite carrying luggage!). These included not only regular exercisers but also non-regular exercisers and – most importantly – non-exercisers.

These results taken together emphasize the efficacy of motivational signs in nudging people by reminding them their core values and goals.  

Sources:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/nudge-stairs-experiment-urban-design-lyon-subway-nicolas-fieulaine/

http://www.filedier.nl/ov/via-de-atletiekbaan-naar-de-metro/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/changepower/201711/take-the-stairs-in-busy-airport-you-will-if-you-see

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10935-017-0491-6

Nudge of the Month

Espresso…What else?

Just start with few questions for coffee-addicted people: how many coffees do you take per day and how much sugar do you usually consume per coffee?

We all know that the world divides into two types of people: those who like their coffee natural, and those who like it sweet (sometimes very sweet).

Coffee

If you happen to be in the second group, we have bad news for you. According to the WHO, sugar is one of the major causes of several diseases, especially obesity. Given that the limit of sugar that an adult male can ingest is about 50g per day (7-10 teaspoons of sugar), charging your coffee with extra sugar may not be the best choice for your health, especially if you drink more than simply one or two coffees per day.

Changing habits is easier in words than in action, but there is also good news for all sweet coffee lovers: several kinds of nudges have been developed to address the issue, and have the potential to find further applications in the food sector, for our health’s sake. Here are two simple but effective examples.

 

Do you like to take your coffee at the cafeteria?

Coffee2

Have you ever realised that every time you go to the cafeteria taking a coffee, a tea or a cappuccino, automatically you accompany it with one or two sugar bags?

A study conducted in Italy has investigated whether coffee consumers are aware of how much sugar they consume each time they take a break.

The behaviour of two groups of people has been monitored for 6 days – each one before and after reducing the weight of sugar in each packet from 7g to 4g. The research has shown that the reduction in sugar consumed per client is statistically significant.

This means that reducing the weight of sugar does not affect the number of packets clients take, as people tend to pick up a fixed number of packets out of habit.

Or are you just looking for a quick break?

Coffee3

Most of the times, busy students and workers prefer to just grab a coffee at the nearest vending machine. In this case, how often do they actually pay attention to choosing the amount of sugar?

Assuming that students do not change the default amount of sugar that is set by the machine (e.g. leaving the selection to 3 out of 5 units of sugar), a first simple way to reduce sugar consumption may be reducing the default level of sugar from 3 to 2. In this way, increasing sugar would be an active choice, that is likely not to happen. In fact, behavioural scientists have largely shown that people generally have a bias for maintaining the status quo.

A nudge has been hypothesized by Albert Gascon, a participant in a Nudge Competition on edx.org.
It consists of two intelligent strategies tested in a single nudge intervention.

Firstly, the choice of sugar may be put before the choice of the drink; secondly, instead of reporting “more sugar” and “less sugar”, the extremes of the scale may report the options “healthier” and “less healthy”. In this way, consumers are induced to pay more attention to their choice – instead of relying upon the default option – and are nudged towards a better choice through highlighting the consequences of their choices, that are too often not taken into consideration.

 

Sources:

State of mind http://www.stateofmind.it/2017/11/nudge-quantita-zucchero-caffe/

Albert Gascon http://albertgascon.com/behavioral-economics-in-action-be101x-nudge-challenge/

Our Work

Behavioural Insights and Crime: Part I

Violence against Women (VAW)

When you think of BI and crime, shows like Criminal Minds and Mindhunter (both of which the author of this blog post highly recommends) come to mind. However, tackling VAW requires more than psycho-analysing perpetrators. This is because there are a multitude of other factors leading to the creation of a climate of acceptability toward VAW. Here are some examples, drawing largely on a report by the European Commission:

  • Victims of violence may not report the crime: They may be afraid of the perpetrator, believe they are unlikely to receive help or simply because they are not aware of the support services available. It is also possible that a status quo bias is at play here; victims may be inclined to accept the situation and be unwilling to change it. Social norms could also prohibit them for speaking up.
  • Bystanders may not intervene: Either because they believe it is not their responsibility or that violence within couples is a private matter. They may also lack self-efficacy, i.e. confidence in their ability to make a difference.
  • Perpetrators may not believe they committed a crime, or think they can get away with it. They may also be present biased about the effects on the victim as well as implications for their own lives (punishment/ imprisonment)
  • Disagreement on definitions: For example, while most people agree that rape is wrong, there may not be a consensus on what exactly constitutes rape.
  • Professionals within the legal system may have prejudices too, creating an environment that is not supportive for victims to come forward.
  • Stereotyped media portrayal or inappropriate reporting by journalists of news regarding VAW.

rape

Source: emaze.com

The list is endless and usually a combination of factors operates to encourage victim blaming attitudes. Which is why in the mid-1990s, the causes of VAW were recognised to be probabilistic rather than deterministic. That is to say there is no single cause; the same outcome (VAW) can be caused by a different amalgamation of factors in different social contexts.

One of the simplest models for analysing behavioural causes for a certain action is the Theory of Planned Behaviour. It states that for someone to perform a given behaviour, the following 3 conditions have to hold (assuming they have the intention to carry it out):

  1. Holding a positive attitude toward the behaviour
  2. Considering the behaviour to be in line with social norms
  3. Having self-efficacy i.e. believing that they are able to perform the behaviour

How does BI fit in?

The aforementioned examples can be viewed in light of the above model to design programmes for changing attitudes and behaviours. Some behavioural levers that can be used for this purpose are:

  • Using social norms:

Example: In 1999-2000, James Madison University (JMU, United States of America) ran a campaign aimed at changing misconceptions among male college student about their peers’ sexist beliefs. The campaign used a series of posters and flyers containing contextualised normative messages like ‘A man always prevents manipulation: three out of four JMU men think it is NOT okay to pressure their date to drink alcohol in order to increase the chances of getting their date to have sex’ or ‘A man respects a woman: nine out of ten JMU men stop the first time their date says “no” to sexual activity’. Results showed that there was a significant increase in the percentage of males claiming that they ‘stop their sexual activity as soon as their date says no’, and who endorsed the statement ‘when I want to touch someone sexually, I try and see how they react’.

  • Scarcity:

Victims of violence are in a situation of scarcity of mental resources: they can be under severe time, emotional and/or financial constraints, impairing their decision-making abilities. Therefore making a specific plan with concrete steps to be carried out and creating awareness about it can enhance their self-efficacy.

  • Framing:

The narrative around VAW is slowly changing, with several countries changing the legal definition of rape from “crime against morality” to “crime against the individual”. Similarly, interventions can be designed to convey that VAW is not a private matter and is a serious crime.

Example: A 2002 advertising campaign by New York City focused on increasing reporting by women experiencing domestic violence via a 24-hour telephone hotline. Behavioural levers included framing messages to highlight that violence is a crime for which there is no excuse, and that abusers are diverse and include men with a positive image in society. Posters showed pictures of men — typically a college athlete or professional businessman — behind prison bars, with headings such as ‘Employee of the month. Soccer coach. Wife beater’ or ‘Big man on campus. Star athlete. Abusive boyfriend’, along with the subtext ‘There’s no excuse for violence against women. Men who hit or abuse their partner belong in jail. Report domestic violence and get the help you need’.  Results showed that calls to the hotline increased by 36% in the second week of the campaign.

  • Loss aversion:

Perhaps policemen and judges could be educated on the cost of VAW, rather than focusing solely on reducing prejudice and emphasising the importance of women’s human rights. Also, potential assailants could be discouraged by highlighting everything they stand to lose- their freedom (if imprisoned), their reputation (although this would mean shifting social norms to shaming the perpetrator rather than the victim) and so on. Victims could also be encouraged to report the crimes against them by showing them how they would be losing out the chance to live an abuse-free life.

There are several other behavioural levers that can be harnessed, like choosing the source of the message wisely, addressing the status quo bias, etc. Another idea for changing attitudes, inspired by Dan Ariely’s Ask Ariely column could be presenting people who hold misogynistic views with even more extreme arguments supporting their belief. The absurdity of the ideas may force them to re-evaluate their own attitudes.

Conclusion:

We are finally realising the importance of behavioural science in designing interventions for reducing crime, including VAW.  It is important to pretest initiatives before implementing them and also conduct an assessment of impact once it is in place. VAW is a complex phenomenon, but if we break it down and target specific behaviours, perhaps attaining the goals we want to is not as unattainable as it may seem!

 

Interviews

Interview with Guglielmo Briscese

Guglielmo Briscese is a Senior Advisor at the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in Sydney, Australia. He did his Bachelor’s in Economics from Università Politecnica delle Marche in Italy, MSc. in International Development from University of Glasgow and PhD in Economics from the University of Sydney. The main focus of his research and work are pro-social behaviours (e.g. charitable giving) and employment.

B.BIAS had the honour of interviewing him about his career and research!

 

B.BIAS: How did you get into Behavioural Economics and how did the work you did for international organisations lead you to it?

Guglielmo Briscese: When I was studying Economics I thought that Microeconomics was quite boring and didn’t see how it could have any practical implications since people are just not what these economic models say. That was when one of my professors at university recommended Freakonomics to me. It was around the same time when the Nudge came out as well. I kept Behavioural Economics (BE) as a side interest, because there was no Master’s degree anywhere in Europe in BE and after studying a Bachelor’s degree in Economics, I wasn’t ready to do Master’s in Psychology or so. One of my other interests was Development Economics, especially the work of Esther Duflo and others on Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs). So I decided to enrol in a Master’s degree in International Development in the UK. After that I landed a job in the UN in Italy at the office of evaluation of the IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development). I thought that I’d try as much as I could to promote RCTs internally at IFAD, but there was still the BE element missing. Around 2010-2011, the UK government announced that they would launch a unit called the BIT, but it was still at very early stages. I started looking up PhD programs in this area and decided to do a PhD at Sydney University, in Australia. That was more of a personal choice, because I really liked Sydney.

Then I also realised that one of the most known Behavioural Economists, Robert Slonim, was based at Sydney University. He’s done a lot of research on blood donations and charitable giving. By pure coincidence, a member of the BIT also moved to Australia at the same time and thought of opening the Sydney office. I applied as soon as they opened it, and got in with the first wave of people. That was almost 3 years ago. So that’s my story!

BB: We know that for a couple of years, you were working for the BIT while pursuing your PhD in Economics at University of Sydney. How did you manage to do both?

GB: It was pretty horrible to be honest, not fun at all. I barely slept. You don’t have a lifestyle that’s very sustainable, you can do it only for a few years at most. BIT is an amazing place to work, I can’t think of another place I’d rather work at right now. But it’s also obviously very demanding. You work the long working hours like in consulting, but you also have to apply the academic rigour and come up with good trials. Doing a PhD at the same time with someone who is considered to be the top professor for BE in Australia wasn’t exactly the easiest thing. But the good part is I was doing the same thing, as in the skills I was developing were the same. The fact that I could combine the skills that I learnt from the BIT and bring them into the PhD turned out to be very valuable. I was able to run field experiments that ended up being a chapter of my thesis. And obviously the other way around as well. I brought some expertise and skills that I developed during my PhD that helped me to do my job faster here.

BB: What was the topic of your final thesis?

GB: My PhD was about pro-social behaviour. One chapter was about microcredit. I was working with an NGO that encouraged people to do micro loans. What they found was that a lot of lenders would get the micro loans paid back, but wouldn’t do anything with that money anymore. They wouldn’t re-lend it or cash it out, maybe because the micro-loans felt like a donation or due to the hassle of having to choose a borrower again. So we did an experiment where we sent an email to people saying “Hey, you have some money left in your account that you’re not using. You should do something with it”. We tested 3 different variations:

(1) To the first group, we just provided information: “You have some money available, it’s yours. You can lend it again or cash it out.”

(2) To another group, we said the same except we added that if they did nothing , we’d lend it again on their behalf.

(3) To the third group, we told them that we’d consider their money to be a donation to the NGO if they did nothing with it.

What we found is that in the donation-default group, more people would opt out, and re-lend the money, whereas people in the loan-default group were more likely to go with the default. What we realised with this experiment is that people perhaps chose to join the micro-lending platform because they really like to give loans. If you all of a sudden tell them that you’re going to treat their loan money as a donation that conflicts with the very first reason why they joined the platform. So when you design defaults, you need to take into account people’s past preferences and choices. That was one chapter.

The other two chapters were lab experiments on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). There are studies saying that companies that invest in CSR are better at attracting millennials, but I argued is that even here there is a selection process. We conducted experiments and found that people always choose financial incentives over social incentives. But when companies provide the same level of financial incentives, those that provide the extra bit of CSR are more likely to be chosen. But we didn’t find that social incentives per se get people to work harder and can’t be a substitute to financial incentives.

BB: Which of your projects with the BIT did you like the most?

GB: At BIT I have been working on a large number of trials aimed at decreasing unemployment and improving job opportunities in Australia.

One of these trials aimed at increasing the uptake of government incentives to business to hire a long-term unemployed job seekers. Essentially, the government says: “If you hire this person that has been unemployed for some time, I’ll give you a bit of money”. Surprisingly, the uptake was really low. What we realised is that these sorts of incentives were sending the wrong signal about the qualities of the job seeker. Employers would think: “What is wrong with this job seeker that they have to pay me to hire him?”. So we changed some aspects of how these incentives were promoted and administered, and we framed it as a bonus to the businesses, more along the lines of “You have now an opportunity to hire this person and you will also be rewarded with a bonus if you hire this job seeker”. We increased the uptakeof these incentives, which in turn will lead to more people finding ajob. And it’s quite an interesting case, because it’s a typical scenario where the government has a program that could work on paper, it makes sense, but if you don’t take into account people’s reactions and behaviour, than it’s probably not going to work.

BB: What do you do in your free time and how do you cope with stress?

GB: When I was doing the PhD, there was no such thing as hobbies but I’ve been playing the drums since I was very little. When I finished high school and started university, I initially enrolled in a course to study Biotechnology. I did it for about a year, and then dropped out, because at that time I was playing with a band, and we signed a contract with a label, and we went on a tour in Central America, Italy, Spain, Germany… I thought I was going to be a musician for the rest of my life. But then I decided to enrol in Economics and get back into research. As I promised myself that at some point I’d start again, now that I finished my PhD, I have a band here in Sydney!

Nudge of the Month

A little encouragement goes a long way

When we think about improving student performance, we usually think of major changes in the education system, improving infrastructure, hiring more qualified teachers, etc. All of which are important of course, but could we be missing something? Perhaps something less costly and easier to implement?

Having someone that supports you in your activities is important. There may be times when you feel demotivated, and you just need someone to be there and check on you.

This is exactly the idea that has been used by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in the new UK in their new trial in the context of education. They looked at students who, at the age of 16, had failed Maths and English exams.

Such students were asked to choose their own “study supporter” (e.g. a friend or a relative) –who was supposed to send them text messages encouraging them to study or revise for the upcoming exams.

Could this really make such a difference, you may ask?

The answer seems to be an unambiguous YES. Students were 27% more likely to pass the exams. It seems like knowing that someone cared about their results helped them find the motivation to work harder!  

 

Source: Forbes article.

Article Review

“Adapting to the Destitute Situations: Poverty Cues Lead to Short-Term Choice”

Review of a paper by Liu, Feng, Suo, Lee, Li (2012)

In previous posts (“Scarcity”, “Through the psychology of poverty”), we showed how scarcity affects the way people consider problems and take decisions. Although scarcity may concern many kinds of goods, including even available time, in this article we will consider only the lack of financial means. The underlying idea is that when people are wealthy enough not to have to worry about small expenditures, they do not need to spend mental resources on the task, whereas indigents have to invest time and thought on it.

This has a consequence: scarcity leads people to focus primarily on problems wherein shortage is more severely perceived, even though those same issues are not necessarily the most relevant ones for long term well-being. This compromises the individual’s ability to choose wisely.

Mani, Mullainathan, Shafir and Zhao (2013), following the same intuition, showed how Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test scores are correlated to the perception of poverty. In particular, by inducing thoughts about everyday small financial problems in poor subjects, they were able to severely diminish their cognitive ability, while leaving the wealthy ones unaffected. Interestingly, when no manipulation was performed, there were no significant differences between the rich and the poor’s test scores, suggesting that the reduction in cognitive skills was due to the stress linked to the fact of being (relatively) poor, and not to indigence itself. The idea behind this observation is that cognitive capability is limited and poverty – or simply a reminder of the fact of being poor – “taxes” it, leaving less to handle everyday choices.

Liu, Feng, Suo, Lee and Li (2012) took the discussion a step further: in this case, the considered subjects (all college students) were not poor, but simply cued into different economic statuses. In particular, they studied whether poverty cues affected inter-temporal choices under the general assumption that people exposed to poverty prefer a short-term but smaller reward.

In all experiments, participants could opt between a smaller but immediate payment and larger but later in time one. They were asked to take their choice before and after completing the priming task, so that the first one can be used as a benchmark. The games were repeated several times. In Experiment 1, subjects were primed in an explicit way by having to judge the degree of poverty or affluence (according to the group they were randomly assigned to) of several pictures; in Experiment 2 they had to count the number of people in each picture, so that the purpose of the experiment was less explicit; in the third one they participated in a lucky draw game in which they would gain a prize or nothing, thus being exposed to a moment of relative affluence or poverty.

22782124_10212901226357233_1588832224_nPictures representing “poverty” and “affluence” from Experiments 1 and 2.

In every experiment the groups assigned to the different cues were balanced, as the percentage of present biased individuals was the same. However, after completing the task, subjects who had been exposed to poverty cues became significantly more prone to opt for an immediate but smaller payment, while those cued into affluence showed a non-significant increase in the choice of the later but larger prize. Results were the same in each experiment, thus suggesting that the environment influences individuals’ perceptions, which is in turn reflected in time preference. Indeed, according to the authors, the poor are subconsciously associated with an unstable context and a lack of means to deal with it, whilst the rich are perceived as economically independent. As a consequence, people, when exposed to situations of poverty, felt more in need of liquidity to deal with uncertainties and hence opted for a smaller but closer-in-time reward. Moreover, the fact that the choices of the other group did not change suggests that individuals are more sensitive to negative cues.

22833343_10212901224477186_1592177517_o22812843_10212901225637215_307340708_oResults from Experiment 2 and 3 respectively: mean percentage of immediate reward as a function of the manipulations of the ‘‘poverty’’ state (left) and the ‘‘affluence’’ state (right), with pre-test (brown) vs. post-test (green) percentage of demand for immediate payments. Error bars indicate standard errors of the mean.

Therefore, the authors conclude that  “just the feeling of poverty influences intertemporal choices – the actual reality of poverty (restricted resources, etc.) is not necessary to get the effect”.

 

References:

Liu L., Feng T., Suo T., Lee K., Li H. (2012), “Adapting to the Destitute Situations: Poverty Cues Lead to Short-Term Choice”, PLoS ONE, Vol. 7, No. 4: e33950.

Mani A., Mullainathan S., Shafir E., Zhao J. (2013). “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function”, Science, Vol. 341, No. 6149: 976-980.

Mullainathan S., Shafir E. (2013), Scarcity: Why Having Little Means So Much, Times Books, New York.

 

Our Work

The Increasing Challenge of Mental Health Problems

The key assumption in neoclassical economic theory is that individuals are perfectly capable of taking rational decisions, translated into the homo economicus ideal-type. But what happens if individuals are not in perfect health and have their decision-making process threatened?

Lately, much has been discussed about the rise in mental health issues, especially among youngsters. In a fast-changing world full of uncertainties, individuals may constantly focus on achieving perfection and success under highly competitive environments, threatening the efficiency of their decision-making processes. A recent report by Craig Thorley for the Institute for Public Policy Research in the UK shows that the number of students under 25 years of age disclosing a mental illness to their institution has increased fivefold over the past decade. What are the causes behind this?

The combination of academic, financial and social pressures is the key to understanding what motivated this phenomenon. It is undeniable that individuals have been living in environments that undermine mental health. For instance, a survey published by stem4, a teenage mental health charity, reveals that the top anxieties among 12-to-16 years old are exam worries, work overload, friendship concerns, lack of confidence and self-esteem, and feelings of being overwhelmed. In parallel, this new generation of youngsters feels more financially pressured given their large student debts, under the expectation that such investments will pay off in the future. Under scarcity of time and mental health, as defined by Mullainathan and Shafir (check our review of their book on Scarcity here), individuals have their “mental bandwidth” depleted, i.e. they become less mentally efficient. What can be done to avoid this?

mentalhealthtags

There is a need to not only prepare students better for academic challenges, but also to provide them with good health support systems inside universities. However, there are three underlying challenges. First, it is necessary to make students speak out for their feelings and enlist the help of a specialist to cope with pressure and avoid loneliness. Second, academic institutions ought to provide easy access to university counseling services, though it is not always the case that supply meets demand, and in less developed countries this type of service may not even exist. Third and more importantly, students may not realize that they need help, or that there is someone willing to listen to them.

Under these circumstances, the national health service and private institutions need to combine forces to find an innovative solution to the rise of mental illnesses. We need to understand its causes and how to tackle it, because it has huge economic costs. Also, we must work towards a society that is sensitive to these issues and realizes the importance of mental well-being.

References

Shafir, E. & Mullainathan, S. (2013). Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. Times Books, New York.

Thorley, C. (2017). Not by Degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK’s universities, IPPR.

The Guardian (March 26, 2017). Mental health problems rife among teenagers but teachers lack skills to help by Rachel Ellis.

The Guardian (August 29, 2017). The rise in student mental health problems – ‘I thought my tutor would say: deal with it’ by Donna Ferguson.

The Guardian (September 05, 2017). More students than ever suffer mental ill health. We must change our toxic world by Nihara Krause.

Nudge of the Month

Challenging the Broken-Window theory

How can we prevent individuals from urinating in open areas?

In the Nudge TV show “The Power of Habit”, Sille Krukow, a behavioural expert based in Denmark, designed a nudge to help the Copenhagen Central Station. The problem they were faced with was that many men would urinate in hidden corners outside the building, despite the close location of public (and clean) toilets.

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Staff has to clean the area several times a day

According to Ms. Krukow, this phenomenon can be explained by the broken-window theory of policing (Wilson and Kelling, 1982). When individuals observe others misbehaving, they tend to act in the same way, instead of doing the right thing.

The solution adopted in the show was to add a urinal to the area in question and stickers on the sidewalks signaling the direction and distance to the closest WC.

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Implementation of the WC stickers

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Urinal installed in the most critical zone

Around 500 people had been observed urinating in two corners of the station during the week before the experiment. After the intervention, half of the people did the right thing, i.e. they instantly used the urinal, while the other half started  to urinate on the street, but changed their behaviour once they saw the urinal. This means that the cleaning staff and station customers were saved of 5,000 liters of urine a week!

To learn more about this nudge (and other experiments), you can find the episodes online here.

Our Work

When our brain decides for us… And without our permission

(Originally published in Slovak at mindworx.net)

Most of us probably believe that we are in control of our own decisions. We have our opinions, beliefs and principles, we know what we like and dislike and we always decide in accordance with our preferences.

However, this is not entirely true. Our brain reacts to all kinds of cues from the external environment and so our behaviour and decision making depend heavily on these. Even if we do not realise it.

MINDSPACE FRAMEWORK

Since there are a lot of these external cues, it is useful to categorise them to be able to analyse them better. One of the possible models is the “MINDSPACE” framework, created a few years ago in the UK by the Cabinet Office and the Institute for Government. Obviously, such models do not include all the possible factors that influence our behaviour, but do describe the most important ones. Thus, it serves as a good basis for a better understanding of human decision making.

The name MINDSPACE is an acronym made of the first letters of the main motivators of human behaviour. These are Messenger, Incentives, Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitments and Ego. Let’s now have a look at each of them.

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Messenger

It is true that how we perceive information depends on their source. Different researchers have shown that we are more likely to listen to what the experts say, but also to accept advice from people similar to us in some ways. On the other hand, if we get advice from someone we dislike, it is probable we will not take it into account no matter how good it is.

Incentives

They include everything that motivates us – either physical motivators (such as money or other non-financial rewards) or psychological motivators (like our intrinsic motivation to do something good for the others). It is useful to know how we react to various motivators and which of them work best in various situations. In general, it is true that losses loom larger than gains, so a potential loss can be a better motivator than a potential gain. Also, our perception is relative – the same amount of money can be seen as too small or too large depending on the reference point.

Norms

More precisely, social norms. People tend to be influenced by what other people are doing. Usually nobody wants to be the “outsider” and have fingers pointing to them, just because they are different.

Defaults

People tend not to change the pre-set options, even for important decisions. The countries in which you are automatically considered to be an organ donor, unless you opt out, have a much larger proportion of donors than the countries in which you have to opt in to become one.

Salience

Logically, our behaviour is influenced by the things we pay attention to. And since there is a huge number of stimuli out there, our brain has to be selective – it pays attention mostly to what is new, simple and different. Sometimes, though, the brain actively seeks for cues that facilitate the decision making. For instance, it may search for an “anchor”, which is the information (mostly numerical) that is used as a basis for making a (numerical) judgement. However, such information does not need to be relevant in a given context and even a randomly picked number can influence how we decide.

Priming

Our behaviour is influenced also by our senses and at the unconscious level. The exposure to a certain type of words, sounds or smells can have a large impact on our behaviour. For example, the participants of an experiment that were required to read words related to old age left the room in a slower pace than the other participants. Or the smell of an all-purpose cleaner in a school canteen prompted the students to leave their tables cleaner.

Affect

It is nothing new that the emotions play an important role in our decision making. What is a bit more surprising is the fact that they influence us even when we do not realise it. An experiment has shown that when a mortgage offer included a picture of a smiling woman, the demand for the mortgage increased in the same amount as if the interest rate of the mortgage decreased by 25%.

Commitment

Commitments and promises, mainly the public ones, determine how we behave. If you struggle to do something, it is useful to commit yourself in some way. Tell your friends that you will stop smoking by a certain date. This will force you to do everything to accomplish our goal, just to avoid the shame of admitting the failure in front of people that are important to you.

Ego

Our actions should be in accordance with what image we have, or we would like to have (in our own eyes, or in the others’ eyes). For instance, men are more willing to contribute to charities if they are approached by attractive women, because in this way they manage to keep a good image in the eyes of the opposite sex.

SO, WHAT?

The MINDSPACE model has been created mainly for public institutions with the aim of improving public policies. Many governmental programmes are unsuccessful exactly because they are not designed for real people, but for “people” that are described by the theoretical (mainly economic) models.

This does not mean, though, that the framework is useless outside the public sector. Each one of us can learn a lot from it. If we better understand how our brains work and what influences our behaviour, we will be able to make better decisions, develop more successful products or provide better services and have better relationships with people around us.

Source: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/MINDSPACE.pdf