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The Things We Do

The Things We Do: How Goals Corrupt

Roxanne Bauer's picture

China has a long tradition of burying the dead and building tombs to honor them. This ancient practice, however, has recently been butting heads with modernity as the Chinese government now needs to conserve limited land for farming and development to support its people.  In an effort to use land more effectively, the government launched a campaign to encourage cremation instead of burial, and authorities demanded that a minimum number of corpses be cremated each year, based on the total population of the previous year.
 
The campaign, however, led to unexpected results.  At the start of November, two officials in China’s Guangdong province were arrested for allegedly buying corpses in order to meet the strict cremation quotas. Police from Beiliu City in Guangxi Province began investigating the theft of bodies in the region during the summer and apprehended a grave robber named Zhong in July. Zhong admitted to stealing more than 20 bodies from the graveyards of local villages in Guangxi at night. He then transported the bodies to Guangdong province to the east, where he sold them to two local officials. These two officials, He and Dong, were formally in charge of funeral management reform in the province and were arrested for purchasing the corpses with the intent of delivering them to a funeral parlor for cremation on the official registry.

Compare this to public school teachers in the United States who cheated on standardized test scores by illegally viewing tests ahead of the test date and changing their students’ answers to meet high yearly targets for student progression.

The Things We Do: Why Habits Stick and How to Fix Them

Roxanne Bauer's picture

"In the gap between intentions fading and habits forming, interventions fail.”
 
These are the wise— and scientific— words of Wendy Wood, a Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California, who presented her research on how habits guide behavior at a brown bag lunch at the World Bank.
 
Standard interventions are generally successful at increasing the motivation of people to change as they raise awareness and understanding around behaviors we'd like to change and new behaviors we'd like to form. However, they often fail to develop long-term habits for people.
 
According to Professor Wood, even if you can change behavior for a short period, old behaviors may be stickier and reappear after a while. The formation of new habits is often analogous to climbing a mountain and returning back down again: the new habit is performed at the start of an intervention but then falls off again as intentions are overcome by other factors.

The Things We Do: Do Good Things Come to Those Who Wait?

Roxanne Bauer's picture

It’s an iconic test of willpower: sit a child down in front of a marshmallow, tell the child that he/she can either have the marshmallow in front of them now or they can have two— if they wait. Then leave the room and watch what the child does.

Some children will sit patiently for the adult to return so they can have their reward.  Others will try to wait but will ultimately succumb to eating the delicious treat. What is the difference between the two sets of children?

In the early 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted a series of these tests, popularly known as the “Marshmallow Tests”, at the Bing Nursery School of Stanford University to study temptation and self-control. There were other variations of the test, in which children were offered pretzel sticks, mints, or colored poker chips. The tests were also replicated in different settings, including South Bronx, where children experience high amounts of stress and poverty and in a residential treatment program for young people at high risk for aggression/externalization and depression/withdrawal. Joachim de Posada, co-author of the book, Don’t Eat the Marshmallow… Yet!, also tried the test in Colombia. The results were consistent. Some children could wait, others could not.

The Things We Do: We Don't Trade Rationally

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Imagine you are shopping for dinner.  You go to the local grocer and notice that rice costs $4 per package and noodles cost $2 per package.  You think to yourself, “hmmmm for one package of rice, I can buy 2 packages of noodles… but I can make more meals with a bag of rice than 2 packages of noodles. I’ll buy the rice.” 

This mental equation tells us much more about what a consumer values than knowing that rice is $4 per bag— a variable the shopper cannot control. It tells us they value rice above noodles.  It tells us about the shopper’s opportunity costs.

Opportunity costs represent the next best option relative to the current choice. Every economic decision necessarily involves an alternative that is passed up in order to pursue it.  The idea is central to how economics views costs and relies on the assumption that in a world of scarcity, the use of resources in one way precludes their use in other ways. 

Nevertheless, while the concept is central to economic theory, there are inconsistencies in how people apply it to their every-day decision-making.  

What would happen if you already had a bag of rice? What would be the opportunity cost of selling it? Would you sell it at the market rate or ask for more?

The Things We Do: Design with the User in Mind

Roxanne Bauer's picture

City planners and design professionals have long known that the way in which physical space is constructed affects human behavior. Walkways, doorways, and lighting direct people for strategic reasons, colors and textures impact our sensory experiences, and the size and flow of space affects our social interaction.

Physical space is also important in designing transportation infrastructure where entry and exit points direct the flow of traffic, ticketing affects efficiency, and roadways shape the speed and orientation of traffic.

As one architect puts it, “Designers often aspire to do more than simply create buildings that are new, functional and attractive—they promise that a new environment will change behaviours and attitudes.”

Consumers consider these aspects when they decide how to travel in a process known as translation in which they consider personal benefits and costs of a product. In this case, people make ask themselves, ‘I know a new bus line is available, but will it save me money or time?’ or 'I can ride my bike, but will it be safe?'  The process is complex, and occurs over time and through repeated interactions.

In order to put design to good use in changing attitudes and behaviors, the city of Bogotá immersed itself in the lives of its residents and created solutions to tackle the heavy congestion and lack of safety that were common on the city’s streets. They used the economics of nudge, paired with design principles, to increase public use of bicycles and buses.

The Things We Do: Shame is a Powerful Thing

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Billions of dollars are spent each year on sanitation, healthcare, and good governance, but the results vary quite a bit from place to place.  What separates successful programs from the unsuccessful?
 
Those that achieve their goals try to change behavior alongside introducing new methods or making investments. One way to change behavior is to use shame— an overwhelmingly negative emotion —to emotionally link individuals to the communities in which they live.
 
Shame and Sanitation

Shame was, in fact, a central ingredient to a program in Bangladesh that reduced the percentage of Bangladeshis defecating out in the open from 19% in 2000 to only 3% in 2012.

The program utilized the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) method, which “focuses on instigating a change in sanitation behaviour rather than constructing sanitation infrastructure.” Changes in sanitation behaviors are accomplished through a process of deliberation and discussion within communities to build consensus on the need to end open defecation and clarify the hazards that open defecation poses.

The Things We Do: I'll Have What's She's Having

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Swimming is to cats what rational thinking is to humans- they can do it, but usually begrudgingly.

While people like to think of themselves as independent thinkers who employ rational thought to make decisions (and this can sometimes be true), many of our choices are influenced by social instincts. What goes through our minds is derived, in large part, from what goes through the minds of those around us. 

According to a book, I’ll Have What She’s Having, by Alex Bently, Mark Earls, and Michael J. O’Brien, humans are fundamentally pro- social creatures that collaborate and copy the behaviors and choices of others when making decisions.

The Things We Do: Saving for Change

Roxanne Bauer's picture

At the basis of communication and public policy are assumptions about human beings- their rationality or irrationality, their foibles, wants and preferences. A lot depends on whether these assumptions are correct. In this feature, we bring you fascinating examples of human behavior from across the globe.

Saving money is hard.  However, it is also considered to be necessary for making large purchases like a house or car, opening up a business, or planning for retirement. Saving can be particularly difficult for the poor who live day-by-day and do not have much disposable income.  In wealthier countries, financial institutions offer a variety of products to help their clients set aside savings, but in poorer countries, there are fewer savings options. Many poor people end up hiding cash, investing in assets such as livestock or land, or engaging in informal savings arrangements

Yet, for those who have even a little money to stow away, the benefits can be enormous. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have found that even those who live on less than $1 per day have the ability save and often spend money on nonessential items such as alcohol, tobacco, and televisions.  Moreover, when poor people increase their earnings, they spend only two-thirds of their increased income on food.  These findings suggest that poor people do have funds to save.

But why is it so difficult for people of all income levels to save?

The Things We Do: How (not What) Movies Inspire Us

Roxanne Bauer's picture

At the basis of communication and public policy are assumptions about human beings- their rationality or irrationality, their foibles, wants and preferences. A lot depends on whether these assumptions are correct. In this feature, we bring you fascinating examples of human behavior from across the globe.

A recent article in The New York Times, “Divining Why One Film Spurs Activism, While Others Falter” highlights the work of Participant Media, an entertainment company that produces film, television, publishing and digital content that inspires social change. According to Participant Media’s website, the company “launches campaigns that bring together government entities, foundations, schools, and others to raise awareness and drive people to take action on issues from each film or television show.” 

But all of this begs the question: are these films successful in doing what they set out to do? Do people learn from the films and change their ways?  What pushes us beyond social media activism to stand up and do something about our outrage?

The Things We Do: Bandwidth Poverty- When our Minds Betray Us

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Struggling to ‘get by’ is stressful.  We worry whether we can make it to our next paycheck, whether a trip to the market will be successful, whether we can pay the rent on-time… the list goes on.

All of this stress leads to an attention shortage, known as bandwidth poverty.  Bandwidth poverty creates a negative, reinforcing cycle.  When we experience financial poverty, we focus on the immediate need to make money or to pay a bill, and we don’t have sufficient cognitive resources or bandwidth to spend on other tasks or later deadlines. This leads to less-than-optimal decisions that leave us worse-off because we’ve lost the capacity or mental space to consider future needs.

In a series of experiments, researchers from Harvard, Princeton and Britain's University of Warwick found that urgent financial worries had an immediate impact on poor people's ability to perform well in tests of cognition and logic.

The researchers conducted two sets of experiments— in two very different settings— one in a mall in suburban New Jersey and one involving sugar cane farmers in rural India.
 


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