Category Archives: biases

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.

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.

Who is likely to win? Depends on How you ask

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The race is heating up. And so are the experts that are conducting, interpreting and concluding opinion polls. As the focus of US presidential election is moving away from on primaries to the final competition, we should expect results from hundreds of opinion polls predicting the winner.

A recent NY times article suggested that Clinton leads Trump by around 10 percentage points. If you believe these polls, then you may be hopeful or concerned depending on which side you are on. But there is a small issue. The result may not be accurate.

This article indicates that there is a significant difference in the results of polls conducted online vs over the phone. The lead comes down four percent when surveys are conducted online. One the reasons cited is the social desirability bias – a desire to project a positive image when one is worried of being judged based on their response. People may go at any lengths to avoid the discomfort and embarrassment of stating an unfavorable response even if that is their honest response. But in a situation of anonymity, I may go back to my preference.

The problem is not new and its not limited to presidential polls. The issue has been discussed extensively in market research. And it becomes much more pronounced in sensitive areas of financial and health care related decision making. Imagine talking to a individual undergoing financial hardships and being delinquent on their debts. Or a conversation around understanding why someone is not adhering to their antibiotics regimen.

Clearly, we need more sophisticated research methodologies to deal with such sensitive matters. In our work in the social sector, we have regularly innovated our research processes to mange these issues. For example, in one of our projects in Africa we used a gamification based research tool wherein the format incentivized true responses over socially desirable response. The research methodology was recognized by The Esomar Congress 2015 where Final Mile won the Best Case History award.

Innovative tools for learning voter’s preference also exist. The Iowa Electronics Market established back in 1988 is one of the early pioneers. Even changing the way the question is framed can have a significant impact. For example, instead of framing the survey question as which candidate are you likely to vote, a better question would be which candidate is likely to win. So while we monitor the election outcomes, it will also be interesting to study the prediction accuracies of the different research tools.

Image Credit: Indian Panorama