Paris attack and the problem of categorization

Blog - Paris Attack

The Paris attacks have been a major shock and we are understandably upset. Most of us have been reminded of some of the earlier acts of terror such as the 26/11 attack in Mumbai or even 09/11 in New York. It also reminded us of the mixed emotions (fear, anger and despair) that we felt during the attacks.

 Since the earlier attacks were also targeted at civilians, we consider this act in the same vein. However, this Atlantic Article – What ISIS really wants suggests that, maybe, this attack is different. The article refers to the origin of the Islamic State from al-Qaeda, the formation of its leader al-Baghdadi, its strong belief of being a key agent of the apocalypse and many other qualities. But the most important point that it tries to make is that ISIS is not like al-Qaeda or any other organization that we tend to categorize as terrorists. The author suggests that we seem to have misunderstood jihadism as monolithic or of a single kind which it is not.

We can probably call this a problem of categorization or essentially mis-categorization.

Over the years, we have learned to categorize things based on certain qualities or labels. This helps us stay organized and also form strategies to deal with a particular category. For example, we use “Soda” as a broad category for all carbonated soft drinks as Coca-cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew.

While this helps us make good decisions in most instances, it may also back fire in certain cases. Consider the way we tend to deal with diet calories. Often we try to measure our calorie intake, we assume all calories are the same irrespective of the source. This may lead to adopting a diet that lacks the nutrients essential for a healthy body. Similarly, we end up stereotyping people, concepts and ideas to fit a category in our mind. And then use learnings and strategies that is applicable in a particular context in a wrong context.

The Atlantic article suggests that this mis-categorization may have been a contributing factor to the failure to control ISIS.

So, how do we deal with this problem?

In our work in the financial services sector, we managed a situation where customers were categorizing their entire debt in the same way. By building sub-categories with new labels, we were able to change this perception and influence the strategies that the customers adopted.

We could probably do something similar in the case of these organizations. Instead of placing both ISIS and al-Qaeda in the same category, we could create sub categories with new names based on the agents’ motive. While this will not solve the problem in hand, it may still influence our strategy to deal with it.

Image Credit: aljazeera


Is the end of one-child policy, beginning of a new experiment?


As per the recent NY Times article, one of the biggest human experiment “One-Child Policy” has come to an end.

The policy came into effect in the 1970s as a response to the concern that the population growth was impeding economic growth. The reversal seems to be a response to a new problem – aging of the population.

The ethics and rationale behind such government interventions have been and will continue to be debated in the public policy and macroeconomic circles. But lets view this problem from a different lens – dealing with a wicked problem.

Ritter and Webber in this paper, were one of the first academicians who developed the theory of Wicked Problem. By definition, wicked problems are problems where defining the problem itself is a challenge. Therefore resolving such a problem becomes extremely difficult or even impossible. For example, was the growing population a cause or consequence of poor economic growth? What would have happened if the one-child policy had not come into effect?

The authors argue that wicked problems may not have immediate or ultimate solutions; instead, they may lead to a wave of consequences. In this case, aging of population in China.

With no end state to aim for, the approach then is to improve a situation instead of trying to resolve it. The challenge of how we define or measure improvement is also equally difficult. More often than not, it comes down to the team in charge of designing the solution to also determine the problem to resolve and the metrics to measure.

Some 40+ years ago, a team decided that curtailing the population growth is the problem to resolve. Today, a new team has decided to take a different direction to solve a new problem.

The New York times article indicates that this as an end to the earlier experiment. But from what we understand, it may just be a start of a new one with potentially new consequences.


Image Credit: m.starrfmonline.com


Getting emotional about razor cartridges

How do you feel about these two Gillette razor blades? Do you like one over the other? Which one would you use?


Though they may seem very similar except for the very obvious color choice, I feel that there will be a big difference in the way the two are used. The key is the color.

The one on the left, designed for Gillette Fusion razors, was launched earlier. The one on the right, designed for Gillette Fusion Power razors, was an enhancement to the product line. Thoughtfully or not, the designers have hit upon a great idea.

First we need to understand how Gillette makes money. A Fusion razor kit is priced at $11.29 MSRP (as on 23-Sep-2015), which includes a razor, 2 cartridges, and an organizer, whereas Fusion cartridge is priced at $17.99 MSRP for a pack of 4. Gillette estimates that people can use a cartridge for five weeks – https://vimeo.com/39102643. I find that the last one in my pack of four lasts appreciably longer than the first three, much longer than five weeks. More cartridges mean more profit for Gillette.

Gillette has a problem, it has to get people to use more and more cartridges without degrading (perception of) blade quality. This is where orange colored “Flexible Comfort Guard” comes in. The image below is a blade that has been used just twice. The specks of black that you see on the comfort guard are hairs that are notoriously difficult to wash away. The orange color has increased visibility of hairs which was earlier less apparent in the blue background color in the earlier version. The emotion of disgust I have when looking at a used cartridge has been effectively dialed up. Over time, most probably lesser than in five weeks, it will get disgusting enough for me to throw this one away and use a new one.


Disgust as an emotion has a very powerful hold on our behavior. We are shaped by evolution to react to disgusting stimuli – usually to avoid, sometimes to clean. Product designers in toilet space have long thought about how to avoid disgust; high function Japanese toilets (Toto NEOREST for example) which play fake flushing sounds, spray fragrance are all example of this in action. Gillette’s design is a good example of a product using our reaction to disgusting stimuli.


Image Credit:

By Barcex (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


How Catholic Church manages Hyperbolic Discounting

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Human beings have a fundamental problem – we are unwilling to connect the future with what is required of us in the present. The future is uncertain. Instead of inspiring caution, our brains’ typical response to this uncertainty is to sharply reduce the importance of the future in our decision-making, an effect Behavioural Economists call ‘hyperbolic discounting’. We discount larger future gains for the sake of smaller, but more immediate ones. Consequences which occur at a later time, good or bad, tend to have a lot less bearing on our choices the more distantly they fall in the future – even when one’s life is at stake. One of the large global initiative most affected by hyperbolic discounting bias is the conservation of environment.

The translation of the awareness around conservation of the environment into concrete behaviour/actions fails because the benefits are in the future and as it takes the self out of the equation – the benefits are not for you but your future generations. If an individual discounts his future, he will discount the future of his future generations even more.

How can one deal with such strong biases – especially one as deep rooted as Hyperbolic Discounting? Educating people out of biases is an uphill task, close to impossible. So mere ‘awareness’ campaigns on the need to protect the environment are not the route to create the required ‘action’.

It is in this context that I view recent encyclical Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis with lot of interest. With this encyclical, Pope Francis has decided to enter into an area where no religion so far has ventured into – the protection of environment. Some  have even questioned as to why a religious leader has got involved in such worldly issues. But I applaud the decision of the Pope to get involved in building a sustainable environment. Because organised religions like the Catholic church are  few of the institutions who have demonstrated their ability to manage the problem of hyperbolic discounting.

By instilling the concept of heaven and hell among its followers, the Church has managed to create an indelible link between one’s present day behaviours and  its future consequences. This has drastically curtailed the human tendency to eat, drink and be merry and just live for today,forgetting the consequences of one’s actions in the future. All teachings of the church reinforce the fact that every present day action of an individual has consequences in the future and this no doubt reduces the tendency to discount one’s future. The teachings of the Catholic Church reinforces the fact that each individual is solely responsible for one’s actions and even thoughts. One cannot wriggle out of the responsibility of one’s action by blaming others or the circumstances.

The concepts of sin is well articulated in all church teachings with absolutely no room for ambiguity as to what is wrong and what is right. The consequences of indulging in each type of sin too is clearly articulated. Mortal sins have the most serious consequences.Recently the catholic church has declared polluting the environment as a mortal sin. Thanks to this decision, now every catholic is expected to confess any transgression on this front to a priest and do the required penance. By declaring environmental degradation as a deadly sin that needs to be mentioned in one’s confession, the consequences of one’s present day actions against the environment are no more in the future, it is immediate. So every time a catholic confesses his environment related sin, the effect of hyperbolic discounting bias is dwindling. Besides this, the act of confession, admitting one’s mistake to a person, generates emotions of guilt and shame. Generation of these emotions are excellent starting points for creating new, correct behaviours.

There is no doubt the concepts of heaven and the eternal fires of the hell are one of the most effective tools to take care of human bias to discount one’s future. If these beliefs are now used to create a sustainable environment, even the staunchest atheist would not complain.


How Emotional is Behavioral Economics?

Behavioral Economics is garnering more and more attention everyday. As it should be – the brain subscribes heavily to heuristics and mental models in order to process information efficiently. Our preferences are highly malleable and are usually constructed on the fly – which is why any field studying descriptive decision making would be incomplete if it didn’t take into account the effects that the decision context and decision frames have on our choices. Which is all very good for Behavioral Economics.

Daniel Kanhneman, Richard Thaler, Senthil Mullainathan, amongst many others drive this field and are creating a massive shift in thinking across several domains in classical economics – savings, investment, wealth, losses, gains. The definition of Behavioral Economics is wide. “It studies the effects of psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and the consequences.” However, whilst the definition mentions ‘Emotional’, the reality is that the literature on Behavioral Economics falls painfully short when it comes to Emotions. System 1 & System 2, Prospect Theory, Choice Architecture, Choice Bracketing, Heuristics and Biases – whilst talking about how human beings are ‘economically irrational’ and the role of emotions in decision making, barely scratch the surface of the nuances of the Emotional System. Which is a pity, because Emotions do not merely play a role in Decision-Making, they guide the decision-making process. There are no decisions that are devoid of emotions, even ones that might seem extremely calculated and ‘rational’. We’ve written about the omnipotent role of Emotions before, here


The brain is continuously appraising our larger context, the surrounding environment and stimuli, and basis these appraisals – which could be non-conscious, or completely deliberative, the emotional system responds – determining action tendencies, and ultimately actions. These emotional responses clue us in on the values we attach to things and our motivations. People with damaged emotional circuits are severely hampered in their ability to make even the simplest of decisions. The essence is not in the simplicity of emotions as we colloquially understand but in the complex determinants of emotions. In understanding the role that aspects like Individuals Goals, Relevance to Decision Maker, Self-Image, Sense of Control, Ability to deal with the Outcomes play. The handles that these provide in explaining decision making, understanding behavioral outcomes and influencing preference changes are invaluable.

Lets talk about Investing – To Buy or Not is driven by  two dominant emotions that come into play and drive all decisions. The ‘Fear of Losing’ and the ‘Fear of Losing Out. Fear all the same. With all its positives and ramifications when fear has only cognitive underpinnings. Whilst Behavioral Economics talks about this aversion to loss, the emotions behind it – the aversion/avoidance that are driven as a result of Fear and anxiety are not detailed. Whilst felt Emotions are a huge driver of decisions, Anticipated Emotions are an even stronger influencer – anticipation of gains, losses, happiness, sadness, loss of control are very very powerful and are strong elicitors of Preference Reversals. Again, a lot of the Heuristics and Biases that Behavioral Economics talks about are driven fundamentally by Uncertainty – another powerful emotional mediator. Our decisions might not maximise economic utility, but are most often maximising emotional utility.

For Behavioral Economics to become more powerful and impactful, therefore, there is an immediate need to place emotions at the centre of this conversation so one is able to see the source of heuristics that drive our behavior and then work on one or more dimensions of the emotional determinants to influence decision making and behavioral outcomes. At FinalMile, studying these emotions is central to our process. We use insights/learnings from Cognitive Neuroscience as well as Behavioral Economics, to design our EMGRAM framework which allows us to make sense of the Emotions associated with any problem Context.

- Written with Anurag Vaish

Image Credit:datascience.berkeley.edu


Colour Me Yellow!

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As individuals, the way we each perceive colours might differ, but it does not change the universal emotional responses we have to them. Certain colours are known to be associated with certain distinct emotions.

Through various studies, it has been noted the colour for joy was invariably yellow. People associate yellow with fun, optimism and enthusiasm. There is a reason those happy smileys are classically done in yellow. Additionally, bright yellow is a sure shot attention grabber.

Our attraction to bright colours comes from our early ancestors, as it was beneficial in spotting brightly coloured fruits and vegetables in uniformly green surroundings. Yellow ones in particular are known to contain carotenoids and bioflavonoids that actually improve your mood. Furthermore, studies have shown that people exposed to yellow-orange light had greater brain activity related to awareness and cognition. It wakes up the circadian eye, as we non-consciously link it with the arrival of day. From our earliest days, daytime has been associated with activity and safety, since we could see everything during these hours. These could be possible reasons why the colour yellow is associated with happiness and joy.

Recently, one of the top paint manufacturing companies conducted a world-wide survey to find out ‘What is the world’s favourite colour?’. People were shown pure saturated colours and they had to hypothetically choose a colour for a wall in their house. One would expect yellow, the colour of joy to be an obvious favourite, but strangely, yellow was seen to be one of the least popular options, with only 5% people choosing it.

Why is it that the colour of joy is also the least favourite of people? This answer might lie in the way our eyes perceive colour. We use the photoreceptors called cones to perceive changes in colour. There are three types of cones cells that are sensitive to short, medium and long wavelength light. In colour terms, that is violet, green and red. Yellow falls in between green and red in the colour spectrum. In order to see it, two types of cones have to work at the same time, which is fatiguing to the eye. Apart from this, yellow also falls in the brighter part of the colour spectrum, making it very vibrant. These two factors put together, makes it rather stressful to look at yellow for long periods of time.

Nevertheless, when used in short bursts, yellow becomes a mood lifter. A living room with yellow cushions adds a burst of joy to the ambience. A sober outfit with a yellow bag can give the wearer a cheerful look. Yellow when used judiciously, can add a burst of joy to anything.

On the other hand, just as too much yellow can be fatiguing, so can too much joy and excitement. On a regular day, it’s ideal to experience multiple short periods of joy in order to go along in an efficient manner. A few pops of yellow joy splashed here and there should lift our mood without taking out too much of our emotional energy.


Nutrition SBCC Video

Final Mile is part of the SBCC (Social Behavior Change Communication) Expert Working Group constituted by SPRING & GAIN under the aegis of USAID. The EWG is tasked with evolving SBCC strategies for improving Nutrition behaviors at scale. Two S’s are critical to this strategy: Scale & Social.

Final Mile played a key role in shaping of this strategy. The Nutrition community, thanks partly to our efforts, saw value in using learnings from Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Neuroscience and Design Thinking to shape SBCC strategies. The case studies and approaches we shared have demonstrated that application of Behavioral Sciences can be achieved at scale provided we use the right research tools and test various interventions, in context. The future of SBCC in Nutrition is being shaped by a group of highly committed organisations that have proven expertise in their areas and we are delighted to be in that group. Here is a short video that captures the essence of this evolving SBCC strategy. It also captures one of our projects that has been featured as one of the “Great SBCC Examples”


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The Sanitation Monster

The Sanitation Monster









Thanks to Final Mile’s work in the Sanitation context, I have the opportunity to attend some of the conferences on Sanitation in India. There are excellent practitioners in India and many passionate experts who have years of field experience. These conferences are a great learning experience. They also are good places to read the overall sentiment. That usually can be seen as an indicator as to where the Sanitation efforts are headed and whether things are getting better. This collective conscious can be a nice barometer to see if the efforts are going to  bear fruit. The problem, needless to say is quite complex and the scale is mind numbing. I have noticed that this can sometimes be overbearing and bog down our sentiment. In this piece that appeared on DNAIndia, I contemplate some solutions to deal with the Sanitation problem. I argue that the problem needs extraordinary respect but we cannot let this morph in to fear.

Read more here


Impracticality of Ethics

Blatter winning the elections once again and that too as easily as he did does bring into discussion the diminishing role of ethics in social decision making. Most federations voting for him highlight the practicality of this decision while at the same time recognising the moral/ ethical dilemma. The support (favour) that Asian and African football has received and will continue to receive under Blatter makes for a practical enough reason to overlook ethics. And that’s what happened. Ethics would have been just too costly. 

Prisoners dilemma as a model for understanding social decision making lays emphasis on cooperation and defection rather than ethicality. So prisoners, respective of their crime, are now evaluated on a new dimension of ethics – one of cooperation or defection. Resultantly most players in the FIFA elections chose to cooperate rather than defect, irrespective whether the ethical question of Blatter’s responsibility in the many frauds is answered or not.

At times though ethics serve as a great alibi for defection and grand standing, at the core of it, it’s still practicality that weighs more. In FIFA elections the stance of Europe and America does come across as grandstanding against the lack of ethics in FIFA’s dealings over the last decade. Could it possibly be due to the success of Qatar’s and Russia’s bid which jeopardised european leagues due to the timing of world cup in Qatar and so on.

And beyond this support is Blatter’s own stance, which loosely translates into  – even if I am responsible for the situation, I am still the best person to deal with it and put things straight. 

Which may not be as incorrect as it may sound in the first instance. 

Politics is full of situations that depict the impracticality of ethical behavior. 

Kant argued that “all politics must bend its knee before right” which meant that “right must never be accommodated to politics, but politics must always be accommodated to right”. But this purist stance has has often been branded unrealistic and impractical.

Recently The Economist carried an article which depicts the economics of bluffing. Drawing an analogy of Greece and UK’s stance on Euro Exit with buying ‘options’ in market. Where the bluff is positioned to draw inducement, with little intent of really exiting the euro. 

Over Promise and Under Delivery is rampant in Politics across the world. And even though it may sound unethical, it possibly is the only route. Be it about eradication of Poverty, Universal health& education, Job creation, bringing back Black Money, wiping out Corruption, reducing Crime, a measured promise would not yield spectacular electoral results. Case in point is Indian general elections held in May 2014. 

It just seems better to over promise and then go about your business with the right intent, even if it comes across as unethical to a few. Like it or not, its just so much more practical. Winning an election on pragmatic promises isn’t that pragmatic. 


The bigger tragedy of the Germanwings disaster

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Just as you were about to hand over the appointment letter to a new employee who has passed all the qualifying tests with flying colours, he says ” sir, I just want to disclose that I am  on medication for depression for the past few years”. What will be your reaction? Will you hold back the appointment letter pending further enquiries? Or will you still hand over the appointment letter irrespective of his new revelation?

The Germanwings disaster has grabbed  everyone’s attention. It is a rare event, laden with lots of emotions and very many facets of the disaster continue to be intriguing. The narrative of the disaster  has a common refrain – the co-pilot was suffering from depression and taking medication for the same, he did not disclose this medical condition to the airline authorities, the  weird behaviour of the co-pilot could be attributed to his depression etc.

Depression, the biggest healthcare problem

Thanks to this spectacular nature of Germanwings disaster the mental illness of depression has shot into limelight. According to World Health Organization 350 million people today live with the problem of depression. By 2030 it will become the largest contributor to the global burden of disease. Across the world fewer than half and in some countries fewer than 10% of those affected receive treatments for this medical condition. When people do get treatment, many a time it is inadequate.

World wide a sense of shame is attached to mental illnesses and so many are hesitant to admit that they suffer from a mental illness. Those taking medication for mental illnesses like depression are uncomfortable about disclosing it even to close relatives. The whole world of mental illnesses exist in an atmosphere shrouded in shame and cover-ups. In such an  atmosphere most people will delay going to a doctor for treatment or do not adhere to the whole course of medication. But there  is no doubt that to build a healthy world, it is imperative that more and more people who suffer from depression seek medical help.

Wrong narrative of the tragedy

The narrative of the Germanwings disaster helped highlight the mental illness of depression. But it has also done lots of damage. Instead of highlighting the widespread nature of depression among the whole population, the focus of the narrative was far too much on the individual pilot. More than making the possible inadequacies in the treatment of depression as the villain, depression itself is being painted as the villain. Although the co-pilot was some one who was aware of his illness and was taking medication for the same, the focus is on the point that he did not disclose his medical condition to his employers. There are few observers who are now talking about psychometric tests that corporates should use to identify those suffering from depression. No discussion is happening as to what corporates should do when they come across employees suffering from depression.

In this atmosphere of vilification about depression, those suffering from this illness will be looked at with suspicion. This in turn will make many who suffer from depression to hide their illness and in many cases delay seeking medical help. Such an environment that encourages hiding one’s  depression problem could spell disaster for the health of the world.

We need a narrative that shows that depression is the most common health problem in the world. Stories of people who are involved in very responsible jobs even though they are under medication for depression should be highlighted. To manage the global health catastrophe emanating from depression we need to have an atmosphere where one could freely discuss about one’s metal illness much like the way we discuss about one’s cholesterol or diabetics problems.


Are we better off living in California?



It’s a question my wife & I have been debating since we moved to Chicago in January.

Of course, the weather is the primary trigger. Talking to our friends doesn’t help either. Folks living in bay area continue to boast about the near 70 F temperatures. Each call typically starts with a mention of the cold temperatures in Chicago. And at the end of each call, we dream of living in a warmer place.

But when we start talking about happiness, there is an interesting pattern to most conversations. Whether it is the high cost of living or the lack of public transport, it seems the favorable weather conditions in California are balanced out by other factors. So in terms of overall life satisfaction, we are not very far off from our friends. In fact, we are probably as satisfied.

This raises the question: will we be more satisfied if we move?

Turns out, the question has been researched already. In this paper, Kahneman and Schkade refer to a research they conducted with students in Midwestern and Southern California universities. Students were asked to give a satisfaction rating to life overall as well as to certain aspects of life. Each student provided a satisfaction score for themselves or someone similar to themselves in both the regions. The data was analyzed for both self and other conditions.

Both groups of students rated that the Californians are likely to be more satisfied than Midwesterners. Satisfaction with climate tend to account for this high score. However, their own overall life satisfaction score was almost the same. And it gets even more interesting. Climate-related aspects were rated as more important for someone living in another region than for someone in one’s own region. In essence, a midwesterner believed that climate has a small part to play for her own life satisfaction but a larger part for someone living in California. Similarly, a Californian believed that the relatively warmer climate has a smaller significance for her life satisfaction but much higher significance (likely negative) for someone living in the midwest area.

How do we explain this discrepancy? The scientists believe that this is largely due to the effect of Focusing Illusion. When a judgement of a category (life satisfaction in Midwest vs California) is made by focusing on a subset of that category (life satisfaction due to climate conditions), we tend to overweigh the subset’s relative value to any other subset. In other words, we tend to ignore other aspects of life satisfaction such as job, travel, housing etc and end up deciding based on one single parameter. This is exactly what the students did and this is probably what my wife and I are doing.

In our case, we are conveniently ignoring the geographic location of Chicago that makes it far easier to travel within United States as compared to California. Something that can be very important for our consulting jobs.

Clearly, we should do a better job in evaluating this decision. Will this awareness of Focusing illusion help us do that? I don’t think so. I will probably rationalize my preference for California to the fact that I grew up in a tropical climate and still pursue the ambition to move. After all, this susceptibility to our evolutionary biases is what makes us human. 



Mind, Society and Behaviour – World Development Report 2015

 The World Bank has recently published its flagship World Development Report 2015 titled Mind, Society and Behaviour, its main message being, when it comes to understanding and changing human behavior, we can do better. The report brings together great content from the various disciplines including Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, Psychology, Behavioral Economics, Sociology, Anthropology and Design.


Excerpt :

Research has advanced our understanding of the psychological, social, and cultural influences on decision making and human behavior and has demonstrated that they have a significant impact on development outcomes. This report showcases an impressive set of results. It shows that insights into how people make decisions can lead to new interventions that help households to save more, firms to increase productivity, communities to reduce the prevalence of diseases, parents to improve cognitive development in children, and consumers to save energy. The promise of this approach to decision making and behavior is enormous, and its scope of application is extremely wide.

You can download the report here

As part of the run-up leading to the report, the World Bank blog featured FinalMile (here), in a series discussing ‘Mind and Mindsets’.

Image Source: WorldBank

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