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Your BE guide to Online Dating

man and woman holding heart boards
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

In the 21st century, the chances of encountering fairy-tale romances are rare. That cute guy or girl you locked eyes with at the bar the other day fades into a distant memory as we become less likely to initiate contact with strangers.

This attitude can be explained through understanding the conduct of the conscious brain. This conscious brain is on the constant lookout for threats or a new focus of attention. Approaching someone you are interested in, becomes troublesome to navigate in a new territory of uncertainty. Your brain begins imagining a multitude of possible ways things could go wrong. Without the guidance of technology, human contact can be a daunting initiative. This is where dating apps enter.

The prime aim of dating apps is to bring together two strangers in the age of disconnect by pooling them on a basis of availability. This way, a market for singles looking to form a relationship is created. However, dating apps are designed in a manner to aid the human mind, which doesn’t function as smoothly as a neo-classical market. Dating apps have been reported to be a highly unsatisfying experience for many due to the room for bad decision making it allows. Dan Ariely accurately nails down the failures of dating apps in an interview at Google[1]. To better understand the significance of his insights on the failures of online dating, it is essential to see why we are prone to make bad decisions in the online dating market, through the concept of ‘cognitive ease[2]

As proposed by Daniel Kahneman (in his book Thinking Fast and Slow[3])we can split the mind in two systems, System 1 (fast, automatic, unconscious) and System 2 (detailed, slower, conscious, lazy). The design of dating apps allows for system 1 to take over most of the decision-making process as it allows for ‘cognitive ease’ rather than ‘strain’.  Each of the points discussed below allow for cognitive ease to flow, which is signified by sense of familiarity and goodness. This is when the decisions made by the individual are more inspired and carefree with a higher chance of decision-making error.

  1. Decoy Effect: For those who are familiar with how dating apps work, you may often find yourself surprised when you are matched with someone you don’t recall swiping right on. The frequency of such cases can be explained by the decoy effect. A choice is made more attractive by placing a less attractive option before it. This, then raises the value of the initial option. In this way, a present match could appear more attractive to you if the preceding match was not your type. Cognitive ease is what makes you swipe right on the antecedent. The clear display of the options available to you make the decoy effect stand out more. Since clear display is an engager of cognitive ease, you decide to immediately swipe right, without a thought about the error in your better judgement.


  1. Heuristics: Dating apps implement profiles with pictures and a bio to help condense the best aspects of a person’s personality and help them find a match. This decision-making process is limited to a simple swipe of the thumb, while the weight of the decision to pick a potential date is daunting in contrast. To bridge the gap between the two, heuristics step in. When dealing with such heavyweight questions, the brain tends to answer a smaller set of questions known as heuristics. In context to dating apps, a witty opener could signal to the brain that this person could cheer me up when I down while broad shoulders could signal dependability. An interesting and thorough profile is enough to convince your mind that this person might just be ‘the perfect partner’ by filling in the gaps missing from their profile to suit your primed idea of one. Primed ideas are another enabler of cognitive ease. Once all the gaps have been filled, the profile in front of you feels familiar and true and hence, you swipe right.


  1. Loss Aversion: One of the key issues with relationships developed through an online platform is the lack of investment people devote in developing an intimate relationship. This fact can be attributed to loss aversion. This is the principle that people are more biased towards avoiding losses than gaining equivalent gains. With the number of options available to people, they face a trade-off between investing time and effort to get to know one match intimately (what one could gain) and keeping themselves available to any potential new matches (missing out from dating pool). Consequently, people choose to invest less effort to familiarize themselves with one match in order to preserve availability, which ultimately leads to both parties to have an unsatisfying experience. Additionally, people are forced to move out of a state of cognitive ease. Allowing themselves to explore uncharted territories of another’s personality and life, does not feel familiar or even pleasant to many. Hence, people choose to go for what they know is easy by returning to these dating apps and the cycle of frustration is prolonged.

By writing this piece, I wish to show people the errors in judgment they could possibly make while using dating apps, which are not inherently bad. Understanding the mistakes, one could make in the slippery road of dating in the 21st century could be the first step for many individuals to understand what it is they are truly seeking both from themselves and their potential partners.

Isha Induchudan

Continue reading “Your BE guide to Online Dating”

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How behavioural economics matters in dealing with gender discrimination

Talking about gender discrimination in 2019, an era where it looks like women are treated the same as men, may seem unneeded. But how many of us are actually completely gender neutral, especially when it comes to topics like career and family?

I’ve recently taken an “Implicit Association Test” (IAT) on this topic and it showed that, though I consider myself an activist for women’s right and gender equality, I do tend to slightly link male with career and females with family. This online tests, available on different topics at the link https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html, let people discover that our subconscious isn’t completely immune to biases, no matter how strongly we believe so, and how widespread these latter actually are.

Gender discrimination, especially in the office, comes from men as well as from women themselves, although unconsciously. For example, women tend to refrain from asking higher salaries or negotiate with customers simply because  they feel satisfied with what they have, and they don’t consider like they deserve more: women settle for less while men are four times more likely to ask for higher pay than women with the same qualifications. (“Women don’t ask”; L. Babcock, S. Laschever).

In the movie “On the basis of sex” (2018), the main character, a female lawyer in 1970 fighting for gender equality in front of the law, claims that the few ladies accepted at Harvard Law School in those days didn’t even have a female bathroom but never complained about it simply because they felt incredibly blessed to be accepted in the first place, despite their gender. This is just one example to show how sometimes women don’t fight for their rights just because they feel like they don’t deserve to do so. Although the situation has enormously improved since those days, today still too many women feel “lucky” enough to even have the opportunity to work instead of staying at home and therefore, unlike men, feel like they’re not entitled to more benefits.

Another very common behaviour in this field is the so-called “moral licensing” that becomes the reason why often diversity trainings don’t work. According to this bias, people feel excused for their bad behaviours after doing something good: executives who implement diversity programs, for example, may feel like they have done enough, and therefore feel licensed to go back to their usual behaviour. It is the same mental mechanism that makes us feel like we “earned” eating a chocolate cake after eating a salad.

Solving the problem by trying to change people’s mind seems practically impossible as the majority of employers assures that they would hire the most talented employees, without biases; but we’ve seen that too often that is not the case, even if not consciously. Perhaps the best way to deal with the issue is to implement transparency and honesty, to assure the availability of clear information to be aware of our rights and to push women to find the confidence to know and demand what they’re entitled to.


Costanza De Grandi

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Green Nudging: a gentle push towards a sustainable environment

On 2nd May 2019, together with the Green Light for Business association, BBias held the event called “Green Nudging: a gentle push towards a sustainable environment”. As it was many times remarked during the event, occasions like this one are very important to deepen concepts that we might not be familiar with and to raise awareness on topics that are getting more and more relevant and urgent. As we heard from many participants, it was also a first possibility to understand what nudging practically means and what are its potential applications. In particular, we saw the “green” application of nudges through the presentation of two firms, Patagonia and Too Good To Go.green_nudgind_event_pic

In the first part of the event, Giovanna D’Adda (assistant professor at the Department of Economics of “Università degli Studi di Milano”) introduced and briefly explained the concept behind nudging: an alteration of the choice architecture that gently pushes people towards certain (positive) behaviours. The attention was also partially drawn on the ethical debate concerning nudges: as a matter of fact, many are sceptical about their application, since they think that nudging limits the set of possible choices, hence the freedom of choice. However, it was clearly explained how nudges actually leverage on behavioural biases that are common to most of us, without actually restricting the set of choices, so maintaining freedom. Notice though that this debate is currently going on and, if properly faced, it can be much more complex than how it was just presented. We proceeded understanding how the standard economic model does not fit and explain the actual functioning of the “real” world. In fact, we have behavioural biases that limit us; the most important categories of these systematic deviations are: bounded rationality, bounded will power and bounded self-interest. Briefly, bounded rationality refers to the fact that we have a limited cognitive capacity and therefore we cannot use in the best way possible all the information we receive: this violates the classical principle for which the more information we get, the better our choices will be. Bounded will power is the concept for which we always plan to do something (go to the gym, for example), but we always end up procrastinating, since we are not strong enough to impose to ourselves self-control. Finally, bounded self-interest is a way to say that individuals are not purely selfish, but they care about each other. Nudges leverage exactly on these limitations and possibly help individuals in reaching what they want. Drawing the conclusions of her intervention, professor D’Adda remarked how behavioural biases affect significantly resources consumption. As a matter of fact, consumption choices are frequently based on habits, they are sort of an automatic processes. The firm Amphiro started producing showers with a display that shows how many litres of water are consumed while taking the shower. This produces a remarkable reduction in the water consumption because it somehow resets the reference point for consumers: while before people did not have any clue on their water consumption, with the adoption of this device consumers perceive every litre as a loss and consequently they tend to consume less. Another example of nudge is the one of putting the default option of printers on front and back, with the consequence of reducing the usage of paper. People commonly do not change the default options and hence, with the adoption of this simple trick, they unconsciously save more paper.

Next, the two firms presented their goals and the way they exploit nudges to reach their environmentalist goals. Michele Martinotti (marketing manager) introduced Too Good To Go, a firm whose aim is to reduce food waste, one of the main causes of pollution in the world. Moreover, food waste is a social and economic issue. Practically, Too Good To Go is an app that allows to order unused food from restaurants and supermarkets. Their mission is to empower and inspire everyone to take action against food waste. The way the firm “nudges” people is by reframing the information set: in Denmark, the supermarkets will put the sentence “often good after” right next to the classical “best before” date. “Best before” does not mean that it has to be thrown away after that date; however, the use of that sentence gives a negative framing to the problem, highlighting the negativity of consuming the product after that date. Instead, by writing “often good after”, there is a positive framing of the problem, therefore underlining the importance of checking the product (that might be still good) before throwing it away. Next, the firm Patagonia, an outdoor clothing brand, was presented by Stefano Bassi (sales associate). The activist company is well-known for its social purpose; they claim “we’re in business to save our home planet”. The reputation of a trusted and honest business allowed the impressive growth of the company, that is now making the difference inside the industry (being a relevant part of it). The way they “nudge” people is through advertising the fact that buying their products means also contributing to a good cause: a clear example of this is the famous campaign “1% for the planet”. In this way, buying the product produces a higher degree of satisfaction on those who are concerned with environmental issues. In the end, the more people buy their product, the higher is the 1% contribution to the planet.

To sum up, behavioural biases influence our environmental decisions. Therefore, policies that incorporate behavioural insights through nudges can be effective in facing the environmental problem. However, as noted by the guests, there are still little incentives for firms to invest on the research of new helpful nudges. We will not see firms investing in lab experiments in order to understand what nudges to implement or which strategies might be useful for achieving their goals. The consequence is that the academic world and the business world are not as connected as they should be and therefore they cannot help each other. Trying to solve this lack of connection might be useful in order to make easier the challenge that we face daily: reducing waste and pollution and saving the environment.

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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.


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.


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!


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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?


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.


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.

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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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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%.


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.


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.


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

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Nudges for a healthy lifestyle – Part II

In the article Nudges for a healthy lifestyle – Part I”, we talked about the nudges created by governments around the world related to improving people´s lifestyles.

If you wonder why governments care about lifestyles of their citizens, the reason is mainly money. Unhealthy diet, frequent consumption of addictive substances (mainly alcohol or tobacco), and lack of physical movement are all widespread and may lead to “non-communicable diseases”, such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases. The governments have two possibilities – either encourage the change in lifestyles and decrease the occurrence of such diseases or pay for the cure. Obviously, prevention is a cheaper choice and in case of lifestyle issues, also feasible.

Moreover, if governments understand human behaviour, their attempts to change it will probably be more successful. That is why Behavioural Economics can be helpful in this domain.

Part I of this article was dedicated to the nudges related to food consumption. Part II will discuss nudges concerning tobacco and alcohol consumption and physical movement.


As for physical movement, there has been a very simple nudge trial conducted in the City of Melbourne in Australia. To encourage people to take the stairs instead of elevators in a train station building, the City of Melbourne had the stairs painted in a colourful and catchy way (see Picture 1). It may not seem like  a very strong nudge; why would anyone struggle on the painted stairs if they can see them also from the elevators? But it seems that the citizens of Melbourne did not think like this – according to a report by the Behavioural Insights Team (that collaborated on this trial), the usage of the stairs increased by 25% during off-peak times and by 140% in  peak times!


Picture 1

Source: Zest Events


Moving to tobacco consumption, the nudges used around the world are quite uniform. There are two major manipulations that have been implemented.

1) The first one is plain packaging, whereby the tobacco producers cannot use the package as a marketing space and have to comply with rules for uniform font, size and colour of the text, as well as uniform package colour. The space previously used by companies is now dedicated to health warnings, both in words and in pictures (see Picture 2). The rationale behind such a policy is that it decreases the appeal of tobacco products and at the same time, gives more importance to the health warnings, which should deter people from smoking. It seems like a good idea at first glance, but when one thinks about it more, the following doubts arise. Firstly, there is a large amount of brand loyalty among smokers, so it is not probable that they will stop smoking only because of a change in design. Secondly, there is the optimism bias that goes against the effectiveness of health warnings. People usually overestimate the probability of positive things happening to them and underestimate the probability of the negative ones. Hence, when they see a health warning, they may simply think “it happens, but to the others, not me”.


Picture 2

Source: WHO

2) The second widespread anti-smoking nudge-based policy is the tobacco display ban. In the countries where it has been introduced, tobacco products have to be displayed so as not to be visible to the customers in the shops (with the exception of specialised tobacco shops, of course). Again, such policy goes against marketing possibilities of tobacco producers and the hope is that it will decrease the amount of impulse purchases, which are frequent mostly among the young.

There are several papers trying to evaluate the impact of these two anti-smoking policies, but there is no clear conclusion to be drawn. It seems that smoking is a very complex issue and is cannot be easily solved by using only nudges. Another issue is that in many countries, these policies have been implemented only recently, so it is too early to know their impact. Anyway, even if the nudges are not the solution in this case, maybe they could still complement some other policies to make a real change.

The last lifestyle issue is alcohol consumption and there is a very nice example of the use of nudges in this domain. At the Northern Illinois University, a simple marketing campaign based on social norms (i.e. informing the students about how many drinks other students have when they party) was enough to decrease students´ binge drinking.

(If you want to know more about this particular policy, see the article A Social Norms Approach to Preventing Binge Drinking at Colleges and Universities.)

To conclude both articles about the nudges related to healthy lifestyles, I would like to say one thing. Clearly, nudges do not automatically solve all problems. But as long as they are low-cost and do not harm anyone (such as removing the salt shakers from restaurant tables or painting the stairs in a train station), I think they are worth trying, because even a small positive difference is a step forward towards a healthier life.

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Nudges for a healthy lifestyle

Part I – Food related nudges

Nowadays, non-communicable diseases (such as cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases or diabetes) are a serious problem, killing around 38 million people every year according to WHO. An interesting fact about them is that they are often caused by an unhealthy lifestyle – tobacco and alcohol consumption, unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity.

Obviously, governments worry about the health spending and so they try to come up with programs to solve these issues. But it seems that many times they fail to deliver the desired results. Why is that?

One of the reasons may be that the programs do not provoke the right actions. A traditional approach is to give people information, based on the assumption that they engage in unhealthy behaviours, because they do not know how harmful they are. Another traditional solution is to increase the costs related to certain behaviours, such as increasing the taxes on tobacco or alcohol. A common problem of these methods is that they may not lead people into action. They rely on the fact that people are rational, always weigh the costs and benefits and decide to do what is best for them.

But these programs fail to take into account that people may behave differently in reality. A mere information about the risks of smoking is not sufficient, since people suffer from an optimism bias – they do not believe that something bad could happen to them. There is also a present bias – the cigarette “now” is so pleasurable and the risk of cancer is “so distant”, which is why people will procrastinate their decision to join a stop smoking program.

The behavioural approach means taking these biases into account and creating nudge-like interventions that really lead to actions and consequently to a better health.

Here are some examples of nudges aiming at improving our diet:

1) A very successful and simple initiative comes from the Nordic countries – they use food labels to simplify decision-making process while grocery shopping. The Nordic Council of Ministers established a set of nutritional criteria, which have to be met in order for a product to get the Keyhole label. People know that if they see the sticker, it means the product is good for their health. Some evaluations of the Keyhole label showed that the level of awareness about it is really high (more than 90 %) and that it truly helps people to choose healthier food products.



2) However, such labelling strategies do not work everywhere. Some countries (e.g. Australia, UK) came with the idea of using the Traffic Lights label, which uses the colours of traffic lights to indicate if a product is healthy (green), unhealthy (red) or somewhere in between (amber). It may seem like a good idea, but somehow the results from the countries that are using this label are mixed. Also, the Traffic Lights label faces a lot of reluctance from food producers. For example, several countries of the European Union fought hard against its use, in order to avoid their typical products being labelled red (e.g. Italy, famous for its meat products, among other things).



3) In the US, they have the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement that uses nudges in school canteens. It is run by behavioural economists from Cornell University and it seems to be quite successful. The interventions are minimal, such as changing the names of the food or changing the ways in which the food is displayed, but it has some positive effects on children. I bet you would also prefer to eat “X-ray Vision Carrots” than “The Food of the Day”.

4) To conclude, I mention my favourite food nudge that comes from Argentina. The problem with hypertension (i.e. high blood pressure) in the city of Buenos Aires became very widespread and so the city decided to remove salt shakers from the tables in the restaurants. Now, consumers may get salt only if they ask for it. This way the liberty of choice is preserved, but the choice architecture changes in favour of breaking the automatic habit of adding salt to your meal. The only pity is that there is no study evaluating the impact of this nudge!

Do you know about some other food nudges that governments around the world used to improve their citizens’ diets? Let us know about them!

Next article: Part II – nudge interventions to deal with smoking and alcohol consumption

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Introduction to Behavioural Economics

What is behavioural economics (BE)?

After World War II, human rationality became the core hypothesis of neo-classical economics. Even though “rationality” can have different meanings, it is very precisely defined for the economists – an assumption that we all maximise our utility functions. To this end, we take into account all the available information, think about everything that may happen in the future and make rational expectations about it. Moreover, our preferences are stable and no emotions influence our decision-making process.

But do we actually behave in this way? If you feel like you do not fit the description above, you’re not alone. It turns out that people systematically deviate from the rational agent model. We all certainly let our emotions be a part of our decision process; we do not think about all the possibilities and all the future periods. We tend to prefer different things in different moments. Does this make us irrational though?

No. It just proves that the assumptions of neo-classical economics are a bit too strong. However, the simplifying assumptions made by economists are very useful when one wants to create economic models. But when one wants to understand people´s real behaviour and induce them to make better choices, imposing too many assumptions does not seem like the best strategy. This is basically why behavioural economics comes into picture. Unlike other economists, behavioural economists do not assume that people are fully rational. Instead, they take into account their biases and ways of making decisions when trying to model and change their behaviour.

How was BE born?

How a new field like BE develop? If there is a generally accepted theory, how does a new one come into picture and how do people change their view?

First, there must be doubts. There must be someone that does not think that the given theory is perfect and come up with a new one. Then, the toughest part – the new theory must be accepted by the experts in the field in order to survive.

One of the most famous challengers of the rational agent theory was Maurice Allais, who came up with the famous “Allais paradox”. He showed that people’s choices over lotteries were influenced by the addition of the same independent event across lotteries, something that a rational thinker would not take into account (check out http://mathworld.wolfram.com/AllaisParadox.html).

However, by far the most important work was done by two psychologists – Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (for an overall review of their ideas, try reading Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow”). In the 1960s and 1970s, they started to run experiments and proved that not only do people deviate from rationality, but that they do so in a systematic way.

But this does not mean that all the economists changed their beliefs immediately and rewrote the theories. In fact, BE is still not a part of classical economics textbooks. After Kahneman and Tversky’s discoveries, it took a lot of time for at least some economists to take up their ideas and try to incorporate them into economic theory.

One of the pioneers in this was Richard Thaler. He applied their work mostly into finance and contributed a lot in the development of the field. Thanks to him, the term “nudging” is now used to denote the use of behavioural economics to change choice structures and thus people’s behaviour (reading suggestion: Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein).

Behavioural economics thus brings psychology into economics and serves to create improved economic models, which incorporate the ways in which people really decide. It is a fast growing field that has wide ranging applications – from the marketing and public policy to understanding people’s financial decisions. Considering that it is still in the nascent stage, there is still a lot more work to be done. So let’s dig deeper into this fascinating field… for who knows, the next big breakthrough may come from one of us!

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Welcome to the B.BIAS blog

Wouldn’t economics make a lot more sense if it were based on how people actually behave, instead of how they should behave?
-Dan Ariely

We think it would!

That is why we created B.BIAS – Bocconi Behavioural Insights Association of Students.

This is the space where our members can share their ideas beyond our university classrooms!