Are all crashes, ‘accidents?’

FinalMile works on a number of road safety projects where we are tasked with reducing incidents on highways. A key part of the work is discussions with the safety team and road users. When we ask them to narrate incidents they have seen or been in, many would say, “I was in an accident” or “I saw an accident.”  Oxford Dictionary defines accident as ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally.’  Is it apt to call all the road incidents, ‘accidents?’

The word ‘accident’ is misleading because accident is something that just happens and is unintentional, whereas most crashes happen because of a bad decision made by a driver on the road. Even the crashes that happen due to over-speeding, distracted driving, or driving under influence (DUI) are referred to as accidents. When a driver responsible for a crash says “it was an accident,” what is implied is this: “I did not intend to do it” or “it was unavoidable” even though it was an active decision/choice made by the driver to over-speed, drive when drunk or text while driving. It is the same when a pedestrian jaywalks or crosses without looking. Calling them ‘accidents’ removes the active role the driver or the pedestrian played.

crash
Head-on collision involving two trucks, killing both the drivers on spot; one of the drivers was drunk – a picture taken during one of our road safety projects.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, during the year 2014 in India, 4,50,898 road collisions resulted in 1,41,526 deaths. As per the report, 47.9% of these fatalities were due to over-speeding, 41.5% were due to dangerous/careless driving and overtaking, 5.3% due to poor weather conditions, 2.8% due to mechanical defect and 2.6% due to DUI. If we exclude the fatalities that happened due to poor weather conditions and mechanical failure, 92% of the fatalities were due to driver’s error.

Source: NCRB report 2014
Source: NCRB report 2014

Also, based on a data studied by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of US, 94% of the collisions are due to driver’s error. Around 20 years ago, the US Department of Transportation initiated a campaign to eliminate the use of word ‘accident,’ and police departments of New York City and San Francisco have replaced the word ‘collision’ for ‘accident’ while filling out collision reports.  According to US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, ‘changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave. Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions.’

It is not just about control during the event. Language affects the chain of reasoning far beyond the event. People have a more general tendency to attribute their own behavior to situational factors and other’s behavior to dispositional factors – a social bias known as the “fundamental attribution error.”  Attribution theory helps us to understand why, in case of a crash, the driver attributes his fault to situational factors such as poor visibility or another vehicle, while ascribing behavior of the other driver to dispositional factors such as reckless/wrong side driving or over-speeding. The word ‘accident’ aids in ascribing the reason of the crash to external factors and makes it easy to rationalize. When the crash is clearly attributable to driver’s error, by calling it an accident, the driver is being excused for his negligence and unsafe behavior.  By referring to the crashes as accidents where the driver was not following the posted speed limits, manoeuvring dangerously on the road, or getting behind the wheel drunk, we are not holding the person responsible for the act. It is not that someone has to be blamed or held responsible for every crash, it is to make drivers more responsible and realize that crashes do not happen randomly.

The word ‘accident’ is very colloquial and it is a difficult task for sure to bring about the change in our system, but replacing it with ‘crash’ or ‘collision’ would be the first step to change our perception towards road safety.

Dealing with Fraud

blog-dealing-with-fraud-wells-fargo-scandal

The incentive structure of Wells Fargo has been rightly criticized for the fake account scandal. The roasting of Wells Fargo CEO at the Senate panel hearing has also brought to question the responsibility of the senior executives. However, the overall narrative may be missing an important component – Perception of Risk.

We can safely assume that the front end employees, who carried out the transactions, were largely aware of the illicit nature of their actions. Most likely they also knew the potential consequences such as losing their job, facing charges or even serving prison time. How did the employee’s perceive these risks? What factors moderated their risk perceptions?

These are difficult questions. Unlike the incentive system that is tangible and easier to measure, risk perception is not. Risk is a feeling and feelings are hard to quantify. Our feelings may be moderated by our goals, our ability to deal with outcomes, our past experiences etc. They are also influenced by our social context. The social norms prevalent can easily override the written rules and policies. If people around us are performing deviant behaviors such as the one we are dealing with in this case, we are more likely to follow them. With over 5000 employees implicated, we can expect this issue to be present.

Alternatively, employees may be managing a very different kind of risk. For example, fear of losing their job in the immediate future. The temporal aspect of this risk may amplify it even further and employees might rate it significantly higher than the risk of getting caught in the far future.

So while we are discussing changes to structural aspects such as incentives and punishments, we also need to give adequate attention to the softer side of the issue. We need to design strategies to moderate the risk perceptions. Conventional tools such as awareness / education based trainings have limited impact. This is especially true when the behavior in question is fairly obvious. After all, there is nothing gray about opening a fraudulent bank account. Interventions that provide continuous feedback closer to the work context might be more effective.

This still leaves us with the question of measurement. One way to do that may be identifying lead behaviors. For example, are employees more forthcoming in discussing or informing potential issues? Are managers rewarding such positive behaviors? Are we seeing an increase in minor deviances? Measuring these behaviors can provide organizations the relevant prediction capabilities and also the time to activate preventative strategies. 

Managing organization risks requires focusing on both top-down and bottom-up issues. While we hold the executives responsible to develop the right kind of organization structures, we also need to design tools that ensure alignment of behaviors across the system.

Image Source: The Intercept

ESOMAR Excellence Award for the Best Paper 2015/2016

We are delighted with the news that our paper: Red Alert: Understanding the demand and supply side of girl child trafficking using a behavioural science approach has won the ESOMAR excellence award for best paper.

“The ESOMAR Excellence Award is given to the best paper from ESOMAR conferences throughout the year that best reflects the broad aspects and challenges faced by the market research industry today. All nominations are judged by an independent international jury and carries an ESOMAR-sponsored prize of €4,000”

Of the 6, Final Mile had 2 nominations.

One paper was based on our project to improve demand for Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision and the  winning paper was based on a project we did on finding behavioral science based approaches to prevent child trafficking.

“Trafficking in women and children violates the basic human rights to life, liberty and freedom to chart one’s own life course. Instead, it subjects the victims to cruelty, torture, dangerous and de- grading work, and inhumane living conditions. It is estimated that there are 20 million commercial sex workers in India, and around 80% of these are victims of trafficking”

Our project focus was on preventing trafficking by better understanding at risk populations, both on supply and demand side. Insights from this work have lead to new campaigns and on on ground initiatives that are showing promising results.

We thank ESOMAR for recognizing this work and deeply appreciate their efforts in providing us a platform to share this work which we are very passionate about.

Here is the press release from ESOMAR

https://www.esomar.org/utilities/news-multimedia/news/press-releases.php?idpress=132

 

India’s behavioral science policy unit – Challenges and wayforward

Two recent stories that appeared in Indian media suggest that the Indian Central (Federal) Government is looking to set up a behavioral sciences policy unit under the Niti Ayog, a Government of India policy think-tank established by the Narendra Modi government.

This news item that appeared in The Economic Times  suggests that the government has tied up with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to set up the unit.

There have been several examples of Behavioral Insights units, starting with the one in the UK cabinet office. The Behavioral Insights Team is now partly owned by the cabinet office and calls itself a social purpose company. 

Niranjan Rajyadhyaksha of Mint had written this compelling piece on why the Modi government needs a Nudge unit. The Indian Prime Minister himself on occasions alluded to the behavioral nature of some of the problems, particularly sanitation.

Needless to say there are several advantages of such a unit. This well written editorial in Mint takes a more balanced view to such a unit. Incidentally, 4 of the problems outlined in the opening paragraph of the piece are problem areas Final Mile has experience using Behavioral Sciences.

The piece also points out some potential limitations of such a unit. There are areas where a nudge simply is not good enough, behavioral scientists themselves are not immune to bias and the fact that India is complex. We though believe that the complexity argument is over stretched. There is diversity in every country. Successive governments have been making policies  accounting for the complexity. Our experience in general has been that there are more similarities than there are differences. Dilip Soman, a well know behavioral economist suggests that “Complexity makes it more likely that soft interventions will work better than other options”.  A good next step  would be to recommend such a policy unit at the state level as well.

As pioneers in the field of applying behavioral science to solving real world problems, this is highly encouraging news. There are some challenges such a unit needs to navigate and, based on our experience, these are some of those. We understand that most of these if not all, would have been taken in to consideration by the decision makers.

  1. There is an inherent danger in assuming that a particular behavioral science principle is universally valid. There have been cases where using a principle blindly have backfired. There was a recent experiment where a company used social norms with a view to increase savings by it’s employees. It proved counter productive. In context testing is therefore key.
  2. One of the big crisis that hit the world of behavioral sciences and psychology is where many ‘successful’ experiments could not be replicated. This was particularly true of social priming. This paper co-authored by one of the senior employees at Final Mile has more detail  . There is a need to generate strong evidence before a policy or an intervention can be deployed. Rigorous testing is vital. As Richard Thaler, widely considered the father of behavioral economics says “You can’t have evidence based policy without evidence”
  3. Complex and wicked problems need a multi-disciplinary approach. A nudge unit team needs to bring in diverse skills. One that if filled with Behavioral Scientists may not be the best approach. In our experience, integrating design thinking with behavioral sciences can lead to powerful results. Equally important are measurement and evaluation experts
  4. Navigating through the government system and particularly the famed Indian bureaucracy is going to call for incredible amount of patience and tact.  
  5. Establishing value of such a unit is obviously critical. At a conceptual level, all this makes sense but government officials and ministers are keen on quick results. There are realities of electoral politics. A good approach would be take one or two areas and demonstrate value rather than trying to spread thin across ministries. Peter Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation, Office of Science and Technology policy in the white house made some observations on this subject at the recently held Behavioral Science summit. It is far easier to take life sciences in to application. It’s tangible and we have experience and set systems. Taking behavioral science to people is not the same.  Framing results and writing for policy makers is quite different from writing an academic paper. And that working with existing programs is a much better way to overcome Status Quo bias. Launching new programs may not be the best way to go. 
  6. Libertarian Paternalism is a phrase that Prof. Richard Thaler and Case Sunstein coined. It might sound like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. In their own words “The idea of libertarian paternalism might seem to be an oxymoron, but it is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice. Often people’s preferences are ill-formed, and their choices will inevitably be influenced by default rules, framing effects, and starting points. In these circumstances, a form of paternalism cannot be avoided. Equipped with an understanding of behavioral findings of bounded rationality and bounded self-control, libertarian paternalists should attempt to steer people’s choices in welfare-promoting directions without eliminating freedom of choice.”  However, such a unit is likely to come under criticism from both the right and left of the political spectrum. The left would argue that you cannot call poverty a behavioral problem, the right might term this a “nanny state” initiative. These are extreme arguments but ones that have been made several times. Considering the possibility of sensationalism by the Indian media, such a unit needs to be prepared to effectively deal with criticism.

Ultimately, the success of this unit depends on government support and patience. The mandate needs to come from the highest level, like the White House Social and behavioral science team where President Obama issued an Executive order “that directs all Federal agencies to use insights from the behavioral sciences to make government programs easier to access, more user-friendly, and more effective” 

Obama also notes that “Adopting the insights of behavioral science will  help bring our government into the 21st century in a wide range of ways – from delivering services more efficiently and effectively; to accelerating transition to a clean energy economy; to helping workers find better jobs, gain access to educational opportunity, and lead longer, healthier lives”

The Indian unit could do with a similar endorsement from Prime Minister Modi.

Growth in the design economy

Design Economy

The limited ability of economists to account for the value addition given to goods and services by design (as well as other emerging disciplines) leads to an underestimation of growth figures.

In recent months, methodologies to measure GDP- traditionally the sole concern of the most grave and solemn of economists- has become a topic of mainstream debate in India. The Central Statistical Office (CSO) made two changes in the way GDP was measured: the base year was shifted from 2004-05 to 2011-12, and market prices of products, instead of factor prices, were now included in the formula. As a result, GDP growth figures shot up to 7.9% in the final quarter of FY2016- a figure that has been viewed with skepticism within India as well as abroad. On the other hand, growth figures in the industrialised West- usually in the neighbourhood of 2%- have been known to be routinely underestimated. What causes these discrepancies can largely be explained by the complexity of methods employed to calculate economic growth.

Government statisticians and economists are tasked with assessing, independent of political constraints, various measures to describe how much a nation’s economy and its constituents have grown in a particular year. Aggregations at a national scale and repetitions in counting are obvious difficulties bureaucrats have to deal with, but major complications arise in measuring real economic growth after accounting for price inflation. This amounts to ascertaining whether Rs.10,000 spent in 2016 provide consumers with as much utility or value as they did in the previous year. Conversely, if Rs. 10,000 helped derive a certain utility for consumers one year ago, the CSO attempts to determine how much more it will cost consumers to derive the same satisfaction today.

Even in a theoretically ideal, static economy where the nature and relative role of goods remains constant, these measurements are fraught with multiple problems. But  when the nature of products or services changes drastically, things get so fuzzy that even the ubiquitous ceteris paribus is rendered helpless.

Picture the development of a radical medical procedure that brings respite to the patients of multiple sclerosis, or a new form of chemotherapy that can kill cancerous cells more efficiently. The introduction of such a technology into the economy means that units of currency (dollars, rupees) are worth more than what they were before the new procedure was invented. In most cases there exists a lag for this change to be reflected in GDP calculations, and growth methodologies (to some extent) account for it. But more damningly, the only change reflected in official figures is the change in the the price of the treatment, not for the increase in utility or satisfaction experienced by patients and their families.

Paradigm-shifting medical cures, moreover, are not a commonplace occurrence- the last revolutionary breakthroughs in patient healthcare came with laparoscopic surgery and HIV cocktails in the previous decade. This laconic pace of change is not different in sectors such as automobiles, consumer electronics and telecommunications. The core technology of the internal combustion engine, for instance, has shown little change in over a hundred years. However, even the most Luddite commentators would admit that goods and services have shown value addition over the previous decades particularly in one aspect: design. A large share of the increase in factor inputs employed to produce a car in 2016 come from product and automobile designers that enhance its utility not only in terms of aesthetics, but also with regards to ergonomics, passenger safety and navigation technology.

The real price of automobiles, however, has not risen proportionally. In some cases, there may be a marginal change in the cost of the car year upon year, but all the increase in value addition from design and energy efficiency still contributes towards producing one additional unit of a car- a statistical constraint that partly explains deflated growth figures in regions such as London, whose design industries have grown to an advanced stage and hold a significant share in the overall economy. The increase in value to products and services by using different disciplines of design is said to have contributed 7.3% of the UK’s exports (£34 billion) in 2013, and designers now account for 24% of the wage bill in its information and communication sectors- showing breakneck increases in the last decade. In contrast, UK’s overall GDP growth has languished at 1.4% since the official end of the 2008 recession.

Analysts and economists attribute this slowdown in aggregate demand and growth figures in OECD economies to a drop in overall productivity. In a panel discussion at the London School of Economics earlier this year, RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan admitted how these figures may seem surprising to many at the beginning of their careers- considering they are surrounded by stories of innovations, about problems being scaled in ‘faster, cleverer ways’. The present cohort of workforce entrants is seeing potential improvements to productivity all around them, but these do not seem to translate into concrete growth and employment- summarising a lamentable paradox in today’s economy.

The design-growth contradiction also explains issues that affect developing economies like ours. Simply reversing the argument shows how we overestimate inflation by measuring it nominally, whereas real inflation isn’t as high- partly because of the increase in purchasing power of the currency due to contributions from exciting new fields like design. In other words, your Rupee has a greater ability to purchase better cars than in the past because of the work of an an automobile designer- think of the ways in which the Suzuki Alto is better than the  Maruti 800, even in the latter’s most nostalgia-inducing moments.

Image Source: The Design Sketchbook/Youtube