Category Archives: around us, like us

How context cues behavior

We tend to believe that Indians behave ‘properly’ only in foreign countries – Singapore or USA; that Indians in India are boorish and have no civic sense.

Is that really so? Don’t we behave better in gleaming malls? Don’t we speak softly in libraries? Don’t Malayalees queue up in front of liquor stores?

I go into the behavioral science of civic sense in this article in Mint.

Cheating ourselves to Death?

India is often referred to as the diabetes capital of the world, with around 41 million people living with diabetes in 2007, and projected to reach 68 million by 2025. In one of our engagements we were trying to understand how people living with diabetes manage this disease. One of the perplexing observations was that many people had the belief that their diabetes is under control. This conflicts with most data and expert opinion which suggests that majority of diabetes cases are uncontrolled.

We were trying to understand the source of this belief and started interviewing close family members of patients. One of the most interesting factors that we heard when we spoke to family members of these patients was that these patients “prepared” themselves before going for a blood glucose test. A week before they get their blood sugar tested, they would change their lifestyle – they would exercise, go for walks and control their diet. So when testing happens they get a more favorable result than their actual condition. It looks so irrational that people would cheat themselves into believing that their condition is better than it actually is, thereby putting themselves at risk of not getting the right treatment.

What explains this seemingly irrational behavior? Why would intelligent people who are aware of the dangers of the disease that they have, not want to know the truth and provide their physician with more accurate data for better decision making?

One of the moderators of decision making is the kind of mental models that people create in life that helps them simplify the world. While this is often great to improve efficiency of decision making, it could be deadly if used in the wrong context. A very popular example of a mental model being used in the wrong context is in the case of diarrhea. As Sendhil Mullainathan explains in this video, 35-50% of the mothers in Rural India think that they should reduce fluids if their child has diarrhea. They use an intuitive mental model of a leaky bucket – that you should not pour water into a leaky bucket if it has to stop leaking. This makes diarrhea, something that can be easily managed to the status of a deadly condition.

In the case of diabetes, the mental model that patients have is that one should not to fail a test. People look at each blood test as a test of how well they are managing their condition, thereby framing the issue as a judgment on their own capabilities. And not one that objectively measures the status of their condition and as an input into a treatment regimen that would help their doctor take better decisions.

How do we address such a condition? Breaking mental models is often a high-investment long-term game. One of the approaches that we take at Final Mile is to see how one can work with existing mental models rather than fight it. In this case, simply by encouraging people to adopt HbA1C instead of a spot test can help address this behavioral issue and get a more accurate measure of their condition. It is a simple intervention, but one that addresses the inherent risks of misdiagnosis. The other intervention is to address how doctors and counselors frame the test – it is important that patients do not see this as a test that they fail or pass but one that helps calibrate the medication for a chronic condition.

Dealing with Fraud


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

Irrationality in the face of imminent death

Emirates crash

The video on how the passengers of the Emirates plane that met with an accident at Dubai airport behaved, holds major lessons on how humans behave at times of high risk.

The foremost reaction to any risk by most humans is denial, unless the risk is very salient. Even with the best of information humans are not capable of evaluating the risk levels of most situations. This optimism bias in times of risk can lead to a ‘business as usual’ attitude and resultant behaviours that are inadequate and inappropriate for an emergency situation.

From the video it is clear that many passengers, instead of rushing to the nearest exit and heading for the escape chute, are more focused on opening the overhead lockers and carrying cabin luggage and laptops with them. In that process, they are causing the biggest hurdle for an evacuation process – blocking of the main aisles.  One can hear passengers reassuring each other that nothing critical has happened, and there is no need to worry. The feeling of danger is low in the voices and faces of passengers and there is no sense of urgency in their movements (so much so, that someone has taken his mobile to capture all this!). Then in the 55th second of the video, one hears the voice that is presumably of the flight attendant. In a raised tone, they repeatedly ask passengers to leave their bags and jump out of the plane. Immediately (and finally!) the passengers sense the emergency of the situation that we can hear fellow passengers rushing others to leave the bags behind and get out of the plane as fast as possible. Some are even seeking God’s help. Evacuation now happens at the right pace, in the right manner.

One can be complacent that all the passengers of this Emirates flight got out of the plane in time and that all are safe. But this was clearly a near-miss incident. One cannot be oblivious of some critical mistakes that happened, which could have led to a major disaster. The right behaviour expected of the passengers is – as soon as an emergency evacuation is signalled, all should realise that a dire mishap has occurred, and respond by immediately rushing to the nearest exit, leaving behind their belongings locked in the overhead storage. Instead, in this incident, it is only in the 55th second of the video that people stopped bothering about their bags and laptops and did what was required to do in order to save their lives and the lives of other passengers. The trigger for this change in behaviour of the passengers came from the flight attendant’s tone of voice and the content of the instructions. Which then makes one curiously ponder – why couldn’t have this intervention from the flight attendants happened 55 seconds earlier?

Human beings by nature are overconfident and tend to ignore most risks unless otherwise the proof of risk is very salient. In several situations, more so in emergency situations, the overconfidence of humans should be deflated to generate the right action in them. Merely communicating the information about a risk will not achieve this. Instead, communication about risk should be embedded with right levels of emotions. Humans are driven to immediate action only when there is a FEELING of risk. The first 55 seconds of the video clearly shows that the feeling of risk prevalent inside the airline was inadequate for an emergency situation of this kind.

During emergencies, every second counts. And humans will continue to behave as irrationally as seen here. Therefore, the critical inquiry required from this occurrence is: What can the airline industry learn about human behaviour from this incident? What in the inflight attendants’ training need to be altered, so that they generate the adequate feeling of risk in these emergency situations, which will refrain the passengers behaving either complacent or too panicky? What is the right script and tone of voice should flight attendants use, to initiate the right action among passengers, in emergencies like this? Finally, what is the ideal communication strategy to convey risk  that will motivate humans to take appropriate action even a second earlier?

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.

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