All posts by Shekhar Menon

Status Quo on Brexit

The world is eagerly waiting with bated breath for the Brexit referendum results. Battle lines are drawn, last campaigns have ended, politicians have made their pitch (David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn on the “Remain” faction versus Boris Johnson on the “Leave” faction), world leaders have weighed in on the subject (Obama saying “I hope you will stay”) but the contest is still too close to call. This is proving more nail-biting than Euro 2016 football matches.

Brexit PollsThe poll of polls on the issue from ‘What UK Thinks’ show a 50-50 split between the “Remain” and “Leave” factions. The Economist puts it at 44% for the “Remain” and at 43% for the “Leave” factions with 11% undecided – it was 14% yesterday.

Which way the referendum will swing will depend a lot on these 11-14% undecided voters. What would the undecided voter do? One of the key factors will be a well studied bias – the status quo bias, the preference for the current state of affairs. Prospect Theory explains status quo bias as a result of people’s tendency to overweight losses from a change in the status quo when compared to the gains thus leading them not to prefer a change at all. To complicate matters for people already uncertain about the vote, the issue at hand is mightily complex; it has economic, political, and even racial impact. Uncertainty breeds status quo.

The easiest option for undecided voters is the one that allows them to go on with their lives with the least amount of disruption – not having to make the decision at all. On the other hand, if the undecideds do vote, these votes are likely to be for the “Remain” faction – the status quo option. So all that the “Remain” campaigners should do is to encourage the undecideds to vote and they should have it!

One thing is sure, framing of the Brexit question will not play a part in the decision because of wise moves by the Electoral Commission. We have already covered that aspect in our earlier blog – To B or not to B, that is the question.

Nudging your way to five-stars

Consider this quirky data point from Uber: only 1% of trips in San Francisco gets a one-star or one-star rating according to their 2014 blog article. Even after accounting for the systemic screening of drivers and the fact that Uber drivers may not be a random sample of drivers, the 1% figure ‘feels’ too low for a population of at least 20,000. What could explain such a skew?

A few days ago, the driver (or driver-partner as Uber would like to call him) of an Uber cab I hailed belched through out the ride – disgusting, right! I had made up my mind to give him a one-star. At the end of the trip though, he did a curious thing – he rated me five-star and showed it to me, saying, “Sir, I gave you a 5”. This blog post is about the consequences of that act and how it goes a long way in explaining the skew.

Uber India drivers are master behavioral scientists, as are gold merchants and sari retailers (but that’s a subject for a different blog). The cleverness lies in their use of reciprocity to nudge an upward revision of the rating. Drivers, when ending a trip, are shown the rating screen – this happens usually when the rider is still in the car. To be a truly fair system, one would expect the driver to conceal their rating of the rider and vice-versa. Surprisingly, Indian Uber drivers rate the riders five-star and cheerfully show it to the rider. This simple act kicks in reciprocity in the rider. Suddenly, the rider is under pressure to revise the rating he had ‘decided’; northwards. From ‘this belching buffoon needs a rap on the knuckle and a one-star’ to ‘maybe I should give him a three-star, after all he gave me a 5’. Robert Cialdini, in the book ‘Influence’, says “we are obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations, and the like” – he would be proud!

How would we design a system that doesn’t lend itself to being gamed? For a start, Uber could add a forced delay between the end of a trip and the feedback step. A one minute interval could be enough to retain the memory of the last trip (to ensure accurate feedback), while forcing distance between the rider the driver. It’s not a fool-proof system – drivers could still orally indicate the fact that they would be giving a five-star rating. But I wager that the ratings would be far more evenly spread than the 1% one-star skew Uber has presently – one that is representative of the ride!

Image Credit:

Fear and loathing in Des Moines

Shaming LetterThe US presidential race is probably the most fascinating election from a behavioral science point of view. From as far back as 1920s, researchers have been studying how to get people to vote and how to get people to vote for a particular candidate. There are many accounts of how data science and behavioral science propelled Obama’s 2012 campaign. But the use of behavioral science is a two-edged sword, as Ted Cruz’ campaign just found out. Ted Cruz’ campaign was recently caught in an embarrassing position of having to defend the ‘shaming’ letters sent to potential voters in Iowa.

The letter sent to people who had not voted in recent elections showed people their ‘score’ and their neighbors’ scores based on past voting record. For added social pressure, the letter mentions that neighbors may see your score and that a follow-up letter may be issued after the election.

The letter caused an outrage on twitter with some even going on to ‘punish’ Cruz by professing support for Trump.

The interesting part was that Cruz’s campaign modeled their letters on ones drafted in a 2008 study that studied how social pressure affected voter turn out. Cruz’ letter was not far off from the most successful letter (an 8.1% lift over the baseline of 29.7% voting rate) in the study that also used voters’ and neighbors’ voting history combined with possibility of a post-election follow-up letter.


Paid for by Cruz for President

So how do we get from the nice 8.1% lift to this backlash? The answer lies in ‘context’ – insights from studies have to be contextualized for the situation or risk such failure. Though Larimer also got complaints from voters because the study, the reaction to the study may well have been muted because an independent agent with no vested interest in the election outcome was running it. Larimer, in an email to Washington Post blames the negative tone of the letter for triggering a ‘boomerang effect’. What he overlooks is that as long as the letter states “Paid for by Cruz for President”, the causal attribution for the situation would fall on Cruz (and not ‘self’, which is required for shame) and the emotion elicited may be anger rather than shame.


Image credit: Braddock Massey on Twitter

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.
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