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Humans answer to intuition, not probability: Anand Damani

While humans are creatures of habit, what propels us towards change? How do we perceive risk and make decisions? In a journey of unlearning and discovery, behavioural scientist Anand Damani navigates these questions

Published: Mar 20, 2024 03:06:23 PM IST
Updated: Mar 20, 2024 03:15:42 PM IST

Humans answer to intuition, not probability: Anand Damani Behavioural scientist Anand Damani Image: Bajirao Pawar for Forbes India
If you’ve ever navigated India’s bustling roads, chances are that you’ve found yourself stuck behind a truck with the unmistakable words ‘Horn OK Please’ staring back at you. Painted in bright and bold letters, the sign seemingly encapsulates an entire culture, and it appears that everyone took to the message a little too literally. India’s roads have a noise pollution problem, and to honk or not to honk rarely seems to be the question.
“Over time, honking has become a sheer unconscious behaviour. Even when the signal is red, or as soon as it turns green, people honk. It’s a habit, the way brushing our teeth in the morning is,” explained Mumbai-based behavioural scientist Anand Damani, in an interview with Forbes India.

He added, “There are valid reasons to honk, like if you don’t want someone to crash into you, or to alert those around that you’re there. But there are many invalid reasons, including venting out frustrations. From a broader perspective, there is chaos, and everybody is in a rush, competing for time, money, and survival, which affects the behaviour of honking.” In an experiment marking his entry into behavioural science in 2013, Damani sought to explore how to cut through the noise.
He and his partner introduced Bleep, a red button with a frowning face installed on car dashboards which triggers beeps and flashes when a driver honks and must be manually switched off every time. Studying people’s driving with and without it, the results he found were damning. “I saw a 61 percent reduction in honking with the red button. Since all other factors—traffic, jaywalking, signals—remained the same but people limited their honking, it means that at least 61 percent of the honking was not required.”
To date, Damani applies high-impact, low-cost behavioural science across his work. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Q. A pressing problem of our times is climate change. We’ve seen extreme weather conditions from flash floods to heat waves. What role can behavioural science play in promoting sustainability?
When I chanced upon behavioural science, I found gaps between attitude and behaviour. While you believe you’re environment-friendly, you could be drinking from Bisleri plastic bottles. Converting intention to action is important.
In 2015, I wrote on climate change and got zero response. There was absolute apathy—but now, people are warmer to climate change. To drive this shift, we should start by terming it differently. Climate change, as a label, is passive—we’re in a climate crisis. Wi-Fi, for instance, is a harmless term—but if you label it as radiation, you look at things differently.
Addressing this issue is very complex because it involves human behaviour, but also because the biggest influencers are not individuals. If the largest governments, policymakers, and industrialists take steps towards mitigating the crisis, this will go far beyond us trying to change people's eating or traveling habits, but there’s a trade-off there, and both are required.
Q. What is your outlook on India’s adoption of behavioural science, and how can we realise its untapped potential over the next decade?
If you have guava, you would’ve noticed people’s habit of applying red mirchi over it. Now, even ice cream parlours selling guava ice cream do the same. Behavioural science is that red mirchi, and it’s going to be applied across research, product, technology, design, communications, and policy. Organisations will develop internal teams or outsource this to external people like us.
Over the last five or six years, behavioural science in India has picked up considerably. This is especially amongst corporates that have faced issues and tried other measures which didn’t work. The scope is immense across policy and the social sector, too, with NITI Aayog also setting up its behavioural insights unit.
It has applications everywhere. Marketers use these principles to get new or existing customers to try, buy, or upgrade products or services. Depending on the challenge, you can apply behavioural science in communications or even a website or app’s UI UX. In banking, I’ve used nudges like defaults or loss aversion, a concept suggesting that we hate losing more than we love winning. For instance, we reminded customers that if they don’t fund their account by a certain amount, they would lose a cashback offer.
In another case, I got 16 percent more people in a workplace to drink water using a bottle cap with LED lights that glowed every two hours, nudging them to open it. Very simple steps actually work in persuading people.
I’ve also observed behavioural design tackle abusive, hateful language online. If you write a message perceived to be offensive on X, you’ll be asked to review it. It makes you pause—and reportedly prompted 34 percent of people to revise or delete their tweet. In person, I still don’t know how to prevent this—such as in cricket stadiums where a section of the crowd creates an abusive slogan and, just like the Mexican wave, it spreads. I know why this happens: People are highly volatile and emotional, and deindividuation occurs in a bigger crowd so you feel like you can do anything because you’re anonymous. It results in mob-like behaviour, and I don’t have a solution to this currently.
On an individual level, when cues, actions, and rewards are repeated over time, good habits settle, and bad habits can be broken. For instance, to limit snacking on chips when I get home, I keep it way off on a kitchen shelf—out of sight, out of mind.

Also read: Executives must ask if the world is better off because their business is in it: Paul Polman
Q. What did the pandemic teach us about human behaviour?

Given that I’ve studied decisions closely, I am not surprised by the way people are likely to behave. I was predicting the second wave but nobody around me believed what I was saying. It’s a very difficult situation to be in—nobody in this generation has experienced a pandemic. It’s novel. Second, not socialising goes against human nature. Not meeting people we like to be around hurts our brains the same way it would if someone physically hit us. You couldn’t do things you previously did, like going out, eating in restaurants, meeting near and dear ones, and it created a massive disruption because it was completely alien. There was no social distancing before, nor was there a concept of mask-wearing in India, beyond surgeons and those dealing with hazardous chemicals. As humans, we don’t adapt very fast. I think the only behaviours that stayed with us are hand-washing and video calls.
Q. What factors do we consider when thinking about risk?
We process gut level emotions and perceive risk accordingly. Many people fear flying but don’t properly put on their seatbelt in a car, despite the number of road accidents being far greater than plane crashes. When you’re driving, you feel in control. I’ve even seen a lot of people put on their seatbelt on the back to stop the alarm without wearing it. That’s an illusion of control. In the plane, you’re in a tight container in the air and somebody else has all the controls. People also find it easier to recall the image of plane crashes because when they do happen, the news is so out there that people feel helpless.
Numbers don’t really move us, either. Many can’t fathom the number of deaths on Indian roads. If nothing happened to them all these years, they feel invincible. Probability is also difficult for us to understand—there are many ways to interpret it, and generally, people are not that good at math. People are intuitive and go by the gut. Sensorial powers overcome intellectual thinking, and emotion overpowers reason.
Q. How are technology and the paradox of choice created on digital platforms shaping our behaviours?
It has taken millions of years of human evolution for us to be in the position we are in today. If you mapped out human evolution in 24 hours, we started using the mobile five minutes back. 23 hours, 55 minutes we’ve been without technology—and now, it’s changing so fast that it’s difficult for most, not just the older generation, to keep up.
Humans stayed in jungles for 10,000 to 15,000 years—and because we have the latest gadgets and comforts, we forget that it is still survival that drives us. Given this, we find change hard. New things coming up daily can be disconcerting and lead to decision paralysis. We see this today with Netflix: There is choice overload with so many shows to watch. Now, it uses behavioural science principles to help people make decisions, suggesting series based on our viewing history.
Technology is also designed in a way wherein you forget about time and don’t want to leave. Developers are trying to make scrolling mindless while working very hard in the background to predict your interests and personalise your content. The repercussions of this are drastically reduced attention spans. Reading is reducing—people’s habits are shifting towards consuming more video and audio content. What marketers designing messaging should consider is that people are spending between a few milliseconds and seconds to absorb messages. Because of this, you want to be direct, simple, and avoid creating cognitive or choice overload.
Q. What should organisations be cautious of when applying the field’s principles to practice?
Reducing friction is a big part of my job—the user should take as few steps with as little complexity to complete a desired action. It’s important to avoid creating a bad user experience in the process. As much transparency as you can execute in your communications and design, the better—it should not lead to unfair or misleading tactics. For example, if you’re on a website saying there are only two rooms are left, using the bait of this when there are four rooms would be unethical. Amazon also has lightning deals—which is ethical if the stock really is in low supply because that’s building some sort of scarcity to nudge people to buy the product. But this must be genuine.
A missed opportunity for a company to apply behavioural science was Uber with its surge pricing. That went against psychology—why would I want to pay anything more than 1X? They were telling me “we’re pinching you”, whatever be the reason. So, they changed that. Today, there is still surge pricing, but if something costs Rs 400 instead of Rs 300 in the evening, people are shown that there is high demand or they’re in peak traffic time and will understand it themselves. When you’re anchoring and giving someone a higher number from a base price, they’ll find it more expensive.

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