Category Archives: Irrationality

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.

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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.

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?

Are we better off living in California?

Final-Winter-Forecast

 

It’s a question my wife & I have been debating since we moved to Chicago in January.

Of course, the weather is the primary trigger. Talking to our friends doesn’t help either. Folks living in bay area continue to boast about the near 70 F temperatures. Each call typically starts with a mention of the cold temperatures in Chicago. And at the end of each call, we dream of living in a warmer place.

But when we start talking about happiness, there is an interesting pattern to most conversations. Whether it is the high cost of living or the lack of public transport, it seems the favorable weather conditions in California are balanced out by other factors. So in terms of overall life satisfaction, we are not very far off from our friends. In fact, we are probably as satisfied.

This raises the question: will we be more satisfied if we move?

Turns out, the question has been researched already. In this paper, Kahneman and Schkade refer to a research they conducted with students in Midwestern and Southern California universities. Students were asked to give a satisfaction rating to life overall as well as to certain aspects of life. Each student provided a satisfaction score for themselves or someone similar to themselves in both the regions. The data was analyzed for both self and other conditions.

Both groups of students rated that the Californians are likely to be more satisfied than Midwesterners. Satisfaction with climate tend to account for this high score. However, their own overall life satisfaction score was almost the same. And it gets even more interesting. Climate-related aspects were rated as more important for someone living in another region than for someone in one’s own region. In essence, a midwesterner believed that climate has a small part to play for her own life satisfaction but a larger part for someone living in California. Similarly, a Californian believed that the relatively warmer climate has a smaller significance for her life satisfaction but much higher significance (likely negative) for someone living in the midwest area.

How do we explain this discrepancy? The scientists believe that this is largely due to the effect of Focusing Illusion. When a judgement of a category (life satisfaction in Midwest vs California) is made by focusing on a subset of that category (life satisfaction due to climate conditions), we tend to overweigh the subset’s relative value to any other subset. In other words, we tend to ignore other aspects of life satisfaction such as job, travel, housing etc and end up deciding based on one single parameter. This is exactly what the students did and this is probably what my wife and I are doing.

In our case, we are conveniently ignoring the geographic location of Chicago that makes it far easier to travel within United States as compared to California. Something that can be very important for our consulting jobs.

Clearly, we should do a better job in evaluating this decision. Will this awareness of Focusing illusion help us do that? I don’t think so. I will probably rationalize my preference for California to the fact that I grew up in a tropical climate and still pursue the ambition to move. After all, this susceptibility to our evolutionary biases is what makes us human. 

 

Negativity Dominance and Victim Neglect

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The natural world is abound with asymmetries – from asymmetries in the fundamental physical forces to the left-right asymmetry ubiquitous in biological lifeforms. One such asymmetry that is found in all intelligent lifeforms on this planet and plays a central role in the evolutionary fitness and success of an organism is negativity dominance i.e. the asymmetrical wiring of the brains of humans and animals are such that negative stimuli and expectations are prioritized over positive ones. Negativity dominance grants crucial survival advantage to the organism by shaving off a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator or threat. For example, in the visual processing circuitry of the brain, a superfast neural channel exists that feeds directly into amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions) bypassing the visual cortex that supports the conscious experience of “seeing”. Studies indicate that the threat and danger alarms of the brain are activated via this mechanism even before we consciously recognize the threat. But no comparably rapid mechanism for detecting positive stimuli has been detected.

Negativity dominance is so salient in our perception and cognition, that its manifestations can be observed over a wide and diverse range of behaviour. Perhaps the most well-known manifestation comes from the economic domain, in the form of ‘loss aversion’ i.e. the drive to more strongly avoid losses than achieve gains. For instance, in a bet with equal chances of winning and losing, the winning amount must at least be around twice the losing amount, otherwise most people find the bet too risky. In the social domain, bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. John Gottman, a well-known marital relations expert, estimated that a stable relationship requires that good interactions outnumber bad interactions by at least 5 to 1. Even more striking, yet intuitively consistent, is the fact that a friendship that may take years to develop can be ruined by a single action.

Negativity dominance manifests in our sense of justice and fairness as well. For example, in legal decisions, restoring losses is given far more weightage than compensating for foregone gains. Moreover, we tend to punish meanness more strongly than reward generosity. Indeed, negativity dominance in our sense of justice may be so strong that it might actually hurt victims’ interests. A study recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that punishment restores people’s sense of justice to such a degree that it leads individuals to neglect the victims’ needs. The researchers presented around 400 individuals with varying scenarios regarding crime perpetrators and victims, and surveyed them to examine the correlation between the intensity or quantum of punishment and their desire to compensate the victim, and vice versa. For example, in one of the studies, participants were presented with a case of stabbing and robbing a stranger. The offender was apprehended eventually, but he had already spent the $100 he had stolen from the victim. The participants of the study were randomly presented four scenarios of the punishment that the offender received, varying from probation to 25 years in prison. The researchers observed that the more punishment the perpetrator received, the less likely the participants were to recommend that the victim be compensated. However, varying the victim’s compensation amounts did not significantly affect participants’ punishment recommendations. Furthermore, participants more strongly believed that justice had been restored when the perpetrator had been punished, rather than when the victim had been compensated.

The asymmetry between punishment and victim compensation in restoring justice leads to justice being seen in a very narrow sense – merely as retribution. This can be seen most starkly in cases of sexual violence, wherein victim mistreatment is rampant across sections of society and the criminal justice system, and even when sympathies lie strongly with the victim, public attention and outcry is usually limited to punishment to the perpetrator. Indeed, rape shield laws and rape victim identity protection statutes in most countries around the world stand testimony to the fact that the law often has to step in to protect the victim’s interests, not just from the perpetrator, but also from the society and the system itself. Rape victims are often accused of “asking for it” by “wearing revealing clothes” or “being too friendly with guys”, and are even stigmatized in some cultures. In face of such mistreatment, victims often require psychological counseling, social support, and so on, for rehabilitation and relief, which the justice system so often fails to deliver. On the other hand, the recent shocking case of public castration of a man caught attacking a girl in an alleyway in Ganganagar, Rajasthan, by a vigilante lynch mob, demonstrates the extraordinary motivation of people to punish the perpetrators of crime, not hesitating even to take law into their own hands. Public standards of morality are often suspended in this zeal to restore justice, and it is not uncommon to hear ludicrous demands such as public hanging and public castration for perpetrators of violent crimes.

Adequate mechanisms for rehabilitation of victims are lacking in our criminal justice system, and this aspect continues to be neglected in public imagination, while demands for stricter laws and punishments for perpetrators gain momentum after every public outrage over a crime. This asymmetry needs to be deliberately countered by sensitizing the stakeholders of our justice system to the plight of victims as well as to their own biases that lead them to neglect victims’ interests. Empathy-promoting nudges are required to be incorporated in our legal processes, so that victim compensation receives appropriate weightage in pronouncement of justice.

Nudging to Safety

 

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A recent article in The Economist paints a rather grim picture of Road Safety. Fatalities due to road accidents could surpass HIV related deaths by 2030. Bulk of these fatalities happen in developing and underdeveloped nations.

BBC Future carried a story that features Final Mile’s work in using Behavioral Sciences to improve Road Safety. Human error is the overwhelming cause of accidents and fatalities. Nudging or Behavioral design interventions aimed at reducing driver errors is one effective way to deal with the human errors. There is an urgent need to go beyond plain awareness campaigns. Driving is a highly over-learned and non-conscious activity, one that is very complex involving many senses and skills. Interventions that impact at a non-conscious level, therefore are likely to make a better impact.

The story by BBC Future collates some of the interesting examples of such interventions. Read more here