Category Archives: Social Behaviour

Why don’t we help…and why do we ?

In a recently aired interview, the friend of Delhi rape victim narrated the heart wrenching story. One of the aspect that comes across as shocking is the apathy of people who watched, went by but didn’t help. Its easy to come to a conclusion that we are as a culture cold-hearted, lack empathy, apathetic… Does this explain us in totality ? Are we always like this ?

However gruesome and shameful the events are, we should hold back before we declare ourselves inhuman.

We see so many acts of kindness and goodness in the world. Hardcore capitalists are giving away all their wealth, there are people taking care of strays, so many of us voluntarily donate blood, people opened their doors to strangers during Mumbai deluge, People have spent entire lives in helping others, by some estimates the Mumbai beggars collect in excess of 100 crores a year, so many people have put themselves in harm’s way to protect total strangers and in some cases people have shown extraordinary courage in saving animals.

How can we be both ?

On March 13, 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home in New York. An estimated 12-38 people watched her, but did nothing. More recently during Hurricane Sandy there was an equally heart wrenching incident. Glenda Moore, a 39 year old mother of 2 children(aged 2 & 4) was stuck in the storm. She knocked on many doors desperately seeking shelter as water rose around them. Apparently, no one helped. Eventually the children were torn away from her arms. Their bodies were discovered few days later.

Some attribute this to the social psychological phenomenon of ‘bystander effect’ and diffusion of responsibility. ‘May be someone else will help, there are so many people watching’

This explains only part of the problem and at best a half decent hypothesis. It appears that in the Kitty Genovese case, someone indeed had called 911 and shouted at the attacker. Even in the Delhi incident a recent article by WSJ shows that the bystander effect is not the whole truth. Read more here.  As is the case with such incidents, it is hard to arrive at a definitive explanation, forcing us to resort to cliches like ‘Its a complex and wicked problem’

In the Delhi incident, it is likely that other factors compounded the problem. One is Uncertainty. When we are uncertain of the outcome, we tend to exhibit avoidance / procrastination behaviour. It would be safe to assume that the thought of helping the victims crossed everyone’s mind. But equally likely are conflicting voices. ‘What happens if I help, What will Police ask me to do ? Will I get in to trouble ? Will I be detained, May be I will spend a lot of time around courts because of this. The number of counter-factuals on account of this uncertainty are high. In such situations, avoidance is a natural reaction. To a much much lesser degree, this can be seen when we have to fill a complex form or buy complicated technology or a complex financial instrument.

So, what can we do ? If you are the victim, single out individuals from the group when seeking help. Identify people through their features or the color of the shirt and ask help from a specific person. ‘You with the blue shirt, help me’. Experiments with this approach have shown some positive results.

There are bigger corrections needed both from the authorities and society. In their fascinating book Indianomix, Rupa Subramanya and Vivek Dehejia present a useful analysis on this subject. Save Life Foundation of Piyush Tewari illustrated in their book is a particularly useful model on how reducing uncertainties and improving incentives can improve the situation. Read Rupa Subramanya’s article on this issue here

For starters, Police should communicate and demonstrate with clarity on what happens to people who help. Reduce the uncertainty. Currently the belief is strong that anything thats got to do with the Police is troublesome. If we have to avoid such behaviour in future, Police will have to go on an overdrive in persuading people to help, primarily by reducing this uncertainty.

And how do we make help rewarding. Usually, Charity, Help is rewarding enough. In this case the reward is uncertain, both in terms of possibility and the nature of it. May be we could start by popularizing stories of people who helped and reward them socially and emotionally rather than monetarily. A public recognition, an award for good samaritans, like a name and shame register, a name and reward register.

Notwithstanding all the explanations, be it be from Psychology or Economics or Behavioural Science, this incident hurts us making it difficult to absolve ourselves totally. We will for sometime continue to blame ourselves at times and at times blame it on some phenomenon. Some will see it as ‘India only’ phenomenon, some as a Delhi phenomenon. The fact is there are similar incidents across countries. And all societies react the same way. Invariably there’s a feeling of shame and disbelief. This feeling, all said and done is momentary. What is required to make a lasting change is reducing uncertainty and improving social and emotional rewards for those who help.

Lets get emotional

Delhi Protests . (Source Reuters/Mansi Thapliyal)

The recent horrific rape and the subsequent protests have led to many emotional outbursts. Anger, Fear, Disappointment, Frustration, Anxiety, Hope..its been a wild ride of emotions. As expected, many have appealed for calm and a need for a ‘Rational’ and ‘Deliberate’ debate. And that we should not let emotions rule our decisions. The underlying belief is that we are rational, intelligent people who will analyze pros and cons and take decisions that can satisfy all stakeholders.

We think emotions lead to bad decisions and that we are capable of wishing them away.  The only problem with this intelligent sounding argument is that it is largely flawed, on various counts.

Evidence from Neuroscience and Behavioural Sciences suggests that our decision making is largely a non-conscious process. And that Emotions play a much bigger role than we think. Scientists say people with damaged emotional circuits in their brains cannot even take simple decisions, decisions like what time to meet and where to meet, leave alone life altering decisions.

Emotions, apparently are particularly useful when making tough decisions. Like choosing a life partner. There is no checklist or a deliberate analysis. We are guided by our emotions.

Moreover, Emotions lead to action where statistics struggle to. Look at the fund raising campaigns of successful charities. They do not present facts but narrate stories of individuals. These stories are personal and emotional. They lead to higher donations.

Emotions enhance learning as they strengthen associated memories. Neuroscientists say that the emotions are so intelligent that they’ve managed to turn mistakes in to educational events and that these capture the wisdom of experience.

And finally, Emotions are things that happen to us rather than those we wish to occur. Not that every emotion moderated decision is a good one, but what choice do we have ? We are wired to rely on emotions lot more than on objective analysis.

Therefore, a rational debate is unlikely to lead to any action because the complex nature of the problem will seem unsolvable. And those taking the final decisions are biased by their own emotions and beliefs. Two people can look at same piece of data and have differing interpretations. So, we cannot have a perfectly objective and rational decision in spite of best of our intentions.

So, I say, lets get emotional and stay emotional. Thats a scientific way to action.

How do we prevent people from overexploiting their resources?

Are people not aware that over-consumption of resources such as underground water could lead to issues in the future? When living in a highly uncertain environment, it is very difficult for most people to think about the long term. As a result we tend to discount our future benefits heavily.

This theme of discounting the future benefits explains our problems when dealing with many Common Pool Resources (CPR) problems. Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Prize political economist,  defines CPR as a natural or man-made resource from which it is difficult to exclude or limit users once the resource is provided. For example, an irrigation system or a fishing ground that provides resources such as water or fish for future consumption.

A CPR consists of a Resource System like a Fishing ground and a Resource Unit which in this case is the fish. Problem occurs when the rate of appropriation of the resource unit is much higher than its rate of replenishment. As explained by most rational economic theories, individuals voluntary act in order to pursue their own interests without trying to look out for their common or group interests. So, most fisherman will try to maximize their catch of the day and as a result the fishing ground will not be able survive beyond a time period.

But how do we still manage to get our food? While some may argue that “mother earth” is still able to sustain the selfish interests of the humans, we know that there are communities that have been able to maintain their resources systems rather well. In her book, Governing the Commons, Ostrom has given a number of examples of such communities around the world (e.g. Alanya in Turkey). These examples have proven that individuals are capable of thinking long-term. When people start to think beyond their immediate interests, their discount rates that they apply to future benefits tend to change and hence they would value their future much more.

One way to do this is by increasing the vividness of the future. If people can have a better sense of the result of their current actions, then they may act in ways that could lead to a brighter future. Now, we know that the brain always tries to predict what will happen next. In fact “Nexting” is an ingrained propensity of people and it may have developed evolutionarily as a survival mechanism. We applied this principle in a recent project on  preventing vehicle collisions at unmanned level crossings. By using a series of photographs, we showed that the vehicle will be hit if the driver does not stop now and let the train go by.  This solution has been covered by Forbes India in their recent issue. Here is the link

Thus, by aiding the brain’s propensity to predict, we can change the current decisions.  By making the future outcome of the current actions more salient, may be we could nudge people make better decisions.


Image Link: Here

Reducing collissions at unmanned railroad crossings : ForbesIndia story


Back on the success of our work to reduce fatalities due to trespassing, North Western Railways approached us with a more wide spread problem. There are more than 13000 unmanned level crossings across the country. Many drivers assume right of way and get in to a collision with the oncoming train. This leads to many kind of losses, most importantly, lives are lost. Additionally, trains get delayed, property losses occur and line utilization drops, leading to operational losses. Accidents at level crossings is not just an India problem, it is a wicked problem across the developed and developing nations. One that is yet to be solved.

While manning them is a long term solution, it is very expensive and time consuming. Our work was to reduce collisions through behavioral science based interventions.  The cost of such interventions should be minimal and they should be scalable and feasible within the organizational constraints. The interventions were tested in different locations and were shown to reduce the speed of the motorists significantly, thereby giving them crucial additional seconds to react. Forbes India featured the project in their latest issue. Read more here

I am not a Cheater…



“Please don’t cheat “ vs “ Please don’t be a cheater”  – which of the above statements do you think will actually influence your actions? They seem to say the same thing but surprisingly the latter has a higher potential of making you stick to your morals.

Subtle differences in language can affect people’s attitudes and perception of both themselves and others (Banaji & Walton, 1994). As humans we constantly  strive to be a part of group or a clan and this constant desire can deeply affect out behavior. One can stimulate this sense of identity just by the construct of their question or statement. Research ( Bryan, Adams, & Monin, in press) has shown that noun vs. verb framing of sentences has implications on preventing unethical behavior. Take the first two sentences, for instance – these are inspired from noun vs. verb manipulation. The first sentence uses a verb or action (cheat) and the later emphasizes on using a noun or personality trait (cheater) which invokes group identity. When ‘Please don’t cheat’ (verb form) was used in the instructions, participants in a group resorted to the same amount of cheating as a baseline group, whereas using ‘Please don’t be a cheater’ (noun) eliminated cheating completely.

Why should this happen? People can downplay instances of cheating and convince themselves that these occasional lapses do not make one a dishonest person – this is harder to do with the use of a self-relevant noun that clearly states the implications of cheating.

The implications of this subtle influence on pro-social behavior is huge. If “Don’t be a drunk driver” is more effective that “Don’t drink and drive” and “Don’t be a litter-bug” more effective that “Please don’t litter”, all signage world-wide can be made more effective by taking these framing effects into account.