Category Archives: context

Rethinking Behavioural Science Research

The past couple of years have been painful for Social Sciences, with the replicability crisis putting a dent on the credibility of multiple studies in the field – from social priming effects to power poses and will power. An effort to reproduce effects reported in more than 100 cognitive and social psychology studies in three journals, called the Reproducibility Project, has found that findings from around 60 studies do not hold up when retested. Even when effects were replicated, they were weaker than reported in the original studies.

The replicability debate has been focussed, to a large extent, on experimental design and effect sizes. It is suggested that low-power research designs (smaller sample sizes) and lower or weaker effect size studies were more likely unable to be replicated. Additionally, an inherent bias in publication favouring positive results is argued to contribute towards the replication crisis.

An often overlooked part of the discussion seems to be the social context of the experiment and it’s effect on the participants themselves. Currently, academic researchers are sticklers for controlled design, this way the effects of multiple factors on behaviour can be reduced to just one. In view of this, in most universities, the research lab, usually cubicles/ computer laboratory is a heavily controlled, isolated environment. Having a controlled physical environment, however, does not preclude the participants from coming in to the research with their own motivations, dispositions, expectations and emotions. These cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the study at hand just because the study has been stripped of any context. On the other hand, they exert a large influence on outcomes of the study.

For example, aspects of the experimental setting can influence the participants’ reaction to stimuli presented by the experimenter. Participants in psychology studies get paid, and are motivated to play the role of ‘good’ subjects – ascribe to what they think the experimenter wants – these are termed ‘Demand Effects’.  Participants consciously try to recreate experimenters’ hypotheses using available cues. Any psychology experimenter will attest to this fact. As a student, when I conducted my research on Automatic Priming, I used the same testing protocol – picked solitary computer terminals, used a confederate to trick participants into believing they were engaged in two separate studies – one to deploy the priming intervention (‘professor’ versus ‘hooligan’) and another to study the effect it had on knowledge (IQ test). We did probe participants on what they thought the experiment was about and so on, but at the end of the day, the truth is that most participants had their own hypotheses about what we were trying to prove and played up to their hypotheses. Experimenters themselves unwittingly influence participants with their expectations – which participants want to play up to, dubbed ‘Experimenter Effects’.

Psychology is the study of human behaviour – in our anxiety to ensure that it is a strict science, we are using the same experimental models that we use to study physics to study human behaviour. It is time psychology experiments stop treating participants as passive receptors of stimuli. What we want to study are the motivations, the emotions, the beliefs and dispositions for different contexts – why try to make the participants leave those behind at home (which they won’t anyway). Our research will be richer if we simulate the real-life context that we are trying to study, rather than control for it, so the decisions and outcomes of research will be closer to home.

Research at FinalMile attempts todo just this. With our EthnoLab, we simulate real-life contexts as far as possible – we want the decisions in the Ethnolab to reflect decisions taken in real life, not create an alien context which leads to perceived ‘correct answers’. This might mean recreating the real-life environment – either physically, or virtually. The EthnoLab marries the practicality of a controlled laboratory with the ‘real-life’ness of Ethnography. As Smith and Semin (2004) put it :  “The true strength of the laboratory is not its supposed insulation of behavior from context effects, but its flexibility in allowing experimenters to construct very different types of contexts, suited to test different types of hypotheses.” Welcome to Behavioural research v2.0!

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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.

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


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.

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.

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