What’s the Matter With Us?
Behaviour architect Ram Prasad explains why proposed solutions to problems such as spitting and railway track trespassing are fundamentally flawed.
If you’re a bar or club owner, know this: a “No Smoking” sign with a picture of a lit cigarette crossed through by a red slash, especially one that’s neon lit, is about as effective as telling a pack-a-day smoker that smoking causes cancer. In fact, chances are it’ll make the smoker light up instantly. This is because the sign is designed for the conscious brain, when it’s the nonconscious brain that’s really processing the image of the neon lit cigarette, replete with its alluring associations to nightlife. In other words: right intention, wrong outcome.
As a behaviour architect, the bulk of my work at my company Final Mile is developing neuroscience-based applications for solving real life, day-to-day problems. Or in other words to figure out why people do what they do; and in doing so figure out how to get them to stop doing it. In a city like Mumbai, this field of study, called brain sciences, proves exceptionally useful in finding solutions to behavioural problems, like spitting, littering or trespassing on railway tracks. To effectively tackle these issues, however, we have to do away with the fundamental assumption that we are in control of our brain and our behaviour.
In fact, a little more than 95 per cent of the decision making happens at a nonconscious level. We are not aware of the processing in itself, we are only aware of the outcome. Scientists call this a “tape delay” (read more here). In simple terms, our nonconscious brain has already decided which car to buy and then throws the decision to our conscious brain. Our conscious brain then goes about rationalising that this particular car is the best car for us. We’ll find the necessary justifications for a decision already taken. To borrow a phrase from neuroscientist Joseph E. Ledoux, “We know exactly what we want, after we have decided.”
One area where this insight has great use is in designing for public behaviour. Let’s take spitting. The moment we see a visual of a person spitting next to a “Do not spit” sign, we may feel disgust but unconsciously produce excess saliva and consequently have to exercise great restraint to not spit it out. The brain reacts to the image of a person spitting before the control mechanism kicks in. While conducting research on why people spit in public places, we asked a man who had just spat on a staircase why he did it. He didn’t answer the question, but what he did was more disgusting than spitting—he started cleaning the spit with his bare hands. So, at a conscious level, he would rather not spit, but in behavioural terms, he continues to spit in spite of all the shame. Some unconventional experiments have shown promising results. One involved putting up an image of human eyes, which seemed to reduce dishonest acts and spitting as well. In closed environments, most people spit when they are alone; they typically look around to check if anyone is noticing. Using this insight we tried interventions where stick figures and silhouettes were pasted on walls to create a sense that that the spitter was not alone.
In our work to reduce trespassing deaths, we saw that the mere presence of infrastructure doesn’t guarantee the right behaviour. For example, Mulund station has a foot over-bridge, but over 30 deaths occur under it every year. We found that we could solve, to a large extent, the behavioural problem of trespassing if we used some of the learnings from neuroscience.
Where possible, underground walkways should be built. As opposed to an over-bridge, the first step here is walking down, which seems effortless. An over-bridge seems like a lot more effort because the first step is climbing up. The second task of climbing up or down doesn’t impact the decision as much. Where underground walkways are not possible, behavioural interventions aimed at shifting the perception of the risk work. At an intuitive level, people “feel” little risk while crossing tracks and there is a fair amount of over-confidence that nothing will happen to them. (By the way, all of us are over-confident, unless of course one is clinically depressed.). Nonconscious fear building interventions that work at an emotional level have proven to be effective in breaking this over-confidence. In Wadala for instance, we managed to significantly reduce track trespassing deaths through implementation of small signage tweaks and warning systems (you can read more about them here) that were designed explicitly for the nonconscious brain.
Rather than writing obvious things like “Drive carefully”, we need to put in place behavioural interventions that work intuitively. I once saw this message on a highway: “Speed is a five letter word, so is death. Slow is a four letter word, so is life.” By the time you read this profound statement and appreciate the connect, you would have crossed over to the other side of the road and veered into a few vehicles. Surely, we can do better by designing signage that works at the intuitive/automatic level: less words, more visuals, emotional rather than rational messages. But first, we just have to come to terms with this simple yet crazy fact: that we are not as much in control of our actions as we think we are. Still not convinced? Try not thinking about chocolate.
Ram Prasad is the co-founder of Final Mile, a behavioural architecture firm based in Mumbai.Tags: behaviour architecture, Final Mile, Ram Prasad