"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Blue Lights Deter Crime–Annals of Behavior Change

I worked in the field of Behavior Change Communications and for years went about the business of trying to change people’s behavior whether or not they wanted to do so. My job was to make the change so appealing in social, cultural, and economic terms that people simply couldn’t refuse.  Unfortunately the job of modifying deeply-rooted, ingrained sexual, reproductive, or dietary behavior was not so easy.  The commercial advertising model we admired and applied for its pop image, modernity, and canny appreciation of the psycho-social determinants of behavior was no match for behavior which had persisted for centuries and conditioned by the harsh realities of living on the margins.  There were good, solid, economic reasons why farmers wanted more children and their laboring arms; and even more compelling ones for eating calorie-rich food at the expense of vegetables and fruits. “If you can sell soap, then you can sell nutrition” was a vanity.

Nevertheless, we tried.  As far back as the late 60s innovators tired of old-fashioned, pedantic, and patronizing approaches to nutrition education, jazzed it up, made eating right sexy and fashionable.  Having fewer children was urbane, modern, and cosmopolitan. However, none of this worked.  Birth rates started coming down and better diets increased only after people had the money which allowed them to take risk.  It had little to do with what we thought were incredibly creative and innovative marketing campaigns. People aren’t that stupid.

How was it, then, that Madison Avenue was able to sell cars, cigarettes, soap, and Miracle Whip so easily?  Why did their sexy, hip, modern and urbane images work?  First of all, they had millions of dollars at their disposal.  A shift in a fraction of one percent of market share represented billions, so a few million on alluring ads was nothing.  Second, taking a chance on a fifty cent Mars bar when your favorite had been Three Musketeers represented no economic risk whatsoever.  Third, American marketers developed one of the most sophisticated, well-funded research operations ever devised. They quickly moved out of the dark ages of focus groups and consumer surveys and entered the world of psychology and sociology.  What was it about a person’s psychological needs and social demands that made him susceptible to a particular ad? How could one break through a person’s most hidden defenses to sell him a product?

Now in the era of big data, there is little that a marketer cannot know about a potential consumer.  Netflix records every click of every button on the remote as a customer watches a streaming movie.  Amazon mines data from computer cookies and can personalize ads which pop up everywhere.  How did they know that I was looking for a nice place to stay in the Bahamas, we wonder, naively surprised at how the company read your emails and tracked your searches thanks to Gmail, Facebook, and Google.

This is still child’s play – number crunching (although in the billions of bits per second) and connecting the dots.  The more interesting advances are made from perceptual research.  In the book Traffic, author Tom Vanderbilt cites a number of ways transportation planners subtly influence driving behavior.  The length of the painted stripes dividing lanes on a highway influences speed – the shorter they are, the greater the sensation of speed and greater the tendency to slow down.  Planned curves on long stretches of roads – i.e. curves that have no practical purpose – promote alertness and safety. Placing signs that say ‘Merge Now’ near a lane closure rather than a mile up the road allows for full use of both lanes and avoids ‘cutting-in rage’.  Narrowing or widening lanes can affect speed and attention.

A well-known university a few years back decided to eliminate trays in its cafeterias.  With this one simple change, there was less plate waste (students went back for seconds only if they really were hungry and did not pile food on their trays just in case), less obesity, and much lower labor and energy costs to the university.

The ‘fly in the urinal’ case is well-known.  Men like to aim and shoot, so there is less errant spraying of urine when the image of a fly is painted inside the urinal.

Research has been done on  the effect of color, lighting, sound, temperature and other environmental factors on behavior.  The Apple Store has become an icon for brilliant design – its simplicity, white décor, open displays, and lighting which complements all are the message.  There is no disconnect between the companies products, its I-pads and I-phones, and the store itself.  Everything about the design of the product and the design of the store says “Buy Me”.

Because of big data, the correlations which suggest relationships between environmental factors and behavior are easier to spot. Adam Alter, in a column in the New York Times (6.15.13) writes:

A team of contractors in Glasgow, Scotland, installed a series of blue lights in prominent locations citywide. The lights were designed to make unsightly districts of the city more attractive, but after a few months the city’s crime statisticians noticed a striking trend: crime rates declined in the locations that were bathed in blue.

The lights, which mimicked those atop police cars, seemed to imply that the police were watching. In 2005, police in Nara Prefecture, Japan, installed blue lights at crime hot spots and got a similar result: the overall crime rate fell. When others tried the approach, they found that littering and suicide attempts also declined beneath the blue glow.

The urban architects who suggested the blue lights had no idea that they might deter crime and suicide, and therefore set up no research monitoring to check the hypothesis.  It was thanks to new algorithms which at very little cost look for correlations that the blue light effect was discovered.

A more famous example is the ‘Eyes Experiment’:

Apparently people behave more honestly in locations that give them the sense they’re being watched. A group of psychologists at Newcastle University in northeast England found that university workers were far more likely to pay for tea and coffee in a small kitchen when the honor-system collection box sat directly below a price list featuring an image of a pair of eyes, versus one with flowers. The researchers alternated the pictures of eyes and flowers each week during their 10-week experiment, using eyes from both men and women, to make sure that no single image affected the outcome. In every week featuring the eyes, the “honesty box” ended up with more money. 

According to the 'bird in the hand’ theory a Money Back Guarantee always produces increased revenues.  This guarantee is a key element in purchase decisions because it reduces risk.  “If I don’t like it, I can return it”.  However, once customers have the product at home, they ‘take ownership’ of it, ascribe a psychological value to it, and any thought of return passes quickly.

The same is true of rebates. Customers feel they are getting a good deal because the shelf price is reduced by 10 percent with a rebate, but more often than not don’t bother to mail it in. As in the above example, they have taken ownership of the product, ascribed a value to it, and felt that they have paid a fair price.  Of course the hassle of filling out the forms is a strong disincentive as well.

The Opt-In, Opt-Out theory is more controversial.  Researchers have found that most people will not opt out of a program once they have signed up because they quickly get used to it, have made it a part of their lives.  Also according to the theory, the loss of something is worse than never having had it in the first place. 

The charge of manipulation comes when an offeror makes it easier for you to pick his choice rather than the one you might choose upon reflection.  It might be opt-in style - Pick Plan B and if you don’t like it you can opt out - or simply placing the Plan B choice at the top of the list.  Marketers have worked tirelessly not only to manipulate your purchase of one product, but to choose the most profitable from among many. http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/10/encouraging-behavior-change-is-it.html

Recent studies have shown that the act of shopping is the real reward for many women, not the actual item purchased.  This has to do with the economic principle of ‘marginal rates of return’.  After a certain period of time the item that was purchased with enthusiasm and excitement sits on the shelf gathering dust; but the experience of shopping in an alluring retail environment, with so many choices to tickle the fancy, never loses its psychological utility.  In other words, the more attractive and alluring the store, the more customers; and even with marginal utility lurking, they will buy something.

The ‘broken windows’ behavioral theory suggests that otherwise well-behaved citizens will act in more anti-social ways if they perceive that ‘everyone is doing it’; so by sprucing up a neighborhood – repairing broken glass, painting front doors, picking up trash – residents give the impression that people care and you should too.

In one study, social psychologists placed paper fliers on 139 cars in a large hospital parking lot and watched to see what the car owners would do with them.  When drivers emerged from the hospital to find a parking lot littered with scattered fliers, candy wrappers and coffee cups (arranged by the researchers, of course), nearly half of them removed the fliers from their cars and left them on the ground. In contrast, when the researchers swept the parking lot clean before the drivers returned, only 1 in 10 dropped the flier.

In short, we have less free will or freedom of choice than we think; and the long arm of the marketer is guiding our hand as we reach for the Mars bar. The ads we see on television are only the most obvious ways of getting our attention. Big data, cookies, perceptual research, behavioral science and the promise of huge corporate profits ensure that marketers know us better than our own mothers.

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