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The Things We Do

The things we do: Why do conspiracy theories thrive?

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Girl receiving oral polio vaccine in IndiaConspiracy theories abound!  Rumors are whispered, discrepancies in a story are seized upon, and the official version of events is discredited.  Then, an alternate explanation is proposed and evidence is gathered to support it.

While there is no formal, generally-accepted understanding of a ‘conspiracy theory’, they are usually considered to be an explanation for an event that is not the most plausible account and which postulates unusually sinister and competent conspirators carrying out the conspiracy.  Conspiracy theories are usually based on weak evidence, are self-insulating from fact, and sensationalize the actors or the implications of the event.

Contrary to what we might think, many of the people who follow conspiracies aren’t crazy.  They are actually skeptics, they just happen to be selective with their doubt.   According to research, individuals that believe in conspiracy theories tend to favor a worldview in which people are prone to misbehave (or behave downright evil) and in which elites exercise omnipotence.

The things we do: How our competitive natures may help reduce our carbon footprints

Roxanne Bauer's picture

adjusting a home thermostat to save energyIn order to tackle the adverse effects of climate change in our lifetimes, the global community will need all hands on deck. One software company has found a way of reducing energy consumption by tapping into social psychology.

One way of thinking about how to approach climate change is to divide the issue into ‘wedges’.  One wedge would be to increase renewable energy production, another would be to increase energy efficiency in the electric grid, and a third, to make buildings more energy efficient. Along with these other improvements, changing human behavior is another, very important wedge. 

Two families that are demographically similar, living side by side, in similar apartments, can use dramatically different amounts of energy— the difference of which can be attributed to behavioral differences.

Keeping up with the Neighbors

These behavioral differences were demonstrated in a famous psychology experiment that focused on home energy use. The research team, led by two psychologists, Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University and Wesley Schultz of California State University, San Marcos, hung a series of five door hangers with energy-saving messages on several hundred homes in a San Diego suburb in 2004.   One hanger encouraged people to "join their neighbors" in conserving energy, one appealed to their self-interest to save money, another called on them to save energy to protect the environment, and a fourth asked them to conserve energy for future generations and the benefit of society. A fifth and final message simply stated that summer is here and it’s a time to save energy with no underlying reason.

The researchers measured the effectiveness of the messages by obtaining meter readings before and after the door hangers were distributed. They found that the last four had minimal effect. But the first, which mentioned the neighbors, produced a significant 10% reduction in home energy usage.

The things we do: How a simple text message is the difference between success and failure

Roxanne Bauer's picture

A woman and her child get the anti-malaria drugs distributed in Freetown.Mobile phones are increasingly prevalent throughout the world, and researchers have found that sending text message reminders can help people follow-through with their intentions, significantly increasing the success of development interventions.

“People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”

These are the wise words of Samuel Johnson, an English author, critic, and lexicographer.  Even though he lived more than 200 years ago, international development interventions are proving him correct today. 
 
Reminders for Malaria
 
It’s widely known that failure to adhere to a full course of antibiotic treatment results in treatment failure can also encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics, threatening the sustainability of current medications. This is extremely important for malaria, which, according to the World Health Organization, results in 198 million cases each year and around 584,000 deaths.  The burden is particularly heavy in Africa, where around 90% of call malaria deaths occur and in children under 5 years of age who account for 78% of all deaths. Low rates of adherence to artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) treatments has led to prevalence of antibiotic-resistant Malaria in many parts of the world, particularly Africa.  One of the biggest and simplest reasons why people fail to complete the full treatment for Malaria is that they forget.

The things we do: The entourage effect

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Members of the Association Culture et Developpement de Kasserine (ACD) “Culture and Development Association of Kasserine”Psychological research explores a phenomenon known as the "entourage effect"in which allowing individuals, referred to as VIPs, to share otherwise-exclusive privileges with a circle of friends, elevates the status of the VIP.

Economists and marketers alike have known for a long time now that the perceived status of a product has a tremendous impact on sales and who the customer base is. The basic economic reasoning is that the scarcer a product or service is, the more valuable it is perceived to be. The scarcity or exclusivity of the product or service signals its status.

Research on this topic, however, highlights the ultimate form of status: the entourage.

Brent McFerran of the University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business and Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta, Department of Marketing, Business Economics, & Law published a paper in September 2012 called the “The Entourage Effect” in which they demonstrated that when an individual earns or wins a reward, they enjoy it more if they can share it with people they like. This individual, referred to as the VIP because a priviledge has been granted to them, gains status from the act of sharing.  The authors write, “the presence of others (i.e., an entourage) alters a VIP's personal feelings of status.” In particular, they show that “VIPs feel higher levels of status when they are able to experience preferential treatment with an entourage, even if this results in the rewards associated with the treatment becoming less scarce.”  Even though VIPs are sharing their reward, reducing its exclusivity, they nonetheless feel higher levels of status.

The things we do: What's in it for me?

Roxanne Bauer's picture
In a recent seminar at the International Food Policy Research Institute, Professor Nancy Lee, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington and President of Social Marketing Services, Inc. explained some basics about social marketing and behavior change. 

She describes social marketing as a process that applies marketing principles and techniques to influence behaviors for the benefit of individuals and society at large.  The concepts of social marketing have had a profound impact on influencing public behaviors that improve public health, prevent injuries, protect the environment, and otherwise contribute to communities.

Focus on Behaviors
Social marketing focuses on behaviors, and campaigns typically revolve around getting a target audience to take one of six actions:
  1. Accept a new behavior- composting waste, for example
  2. Reject a potentially undesirable behavior- smoking or drunk driving, for example
  3. Modify a current behavior- using fertilizer less frequently, for example
  4. Abandon an old, undesirable behavior- stop littering, for example
  5. Continue a desired behavior- donating blood annually, for example
  6. Switching a behavior- taking the stairs instead of the elevator, for example

The Things We Do: How Crowd Science Can Help Eliminate Biases

Roxanne Bauer's picture

There is a new and exciting field emerging that combines the insight of analytics and psychology; it’s known as crowd science.  Already, it’s a fairly pervasive industry, involving not just data scientists but also behavioral economists, marketers, and entrepreneurs.
 
Crowd science analyzes data (through mining, algorithms, statistical modeling, and others) and then applies psychological or behavioral theories to make sense of the analyses. It is sometimes referred to as the “guinea pig” economy because it utilizes consumer tests— often without the consumer realizing it— to obtain its data and, therefore, insight.
 
One of the most popular forms of crowd science is A/B testing whereby website visitors are shown different interfaces or versions of the same site. The way in which each visitor navigates through the site is then tracked to determine which version is more appealing or effective. One reason A/B testing is so helpful is that it divides users into a control group and a treatment group, allowing the engineers of the experiment to determine not just what the issues are but how to solve them. It also allows decision-makers to test for biases in project design and implementation.

The Things We Do: Your Pain is My Pleasure

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Mel Brooks once famously said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

Certainly, we can all relate to this, whether we like to admit it or not.  When something unlucky happens to us, we feel it more deeply than those around us do, and we wonder why people do not immediately recognize the calamity.  Equally, we take pleasure when an opponent is beaten or find it a little rewarding when our enemy is cut down.  

The joy we experience from the pain of others is known as “schadenfreude” in German and is translated as “harm-joy”.

According to Richard H. Smith, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, schadenfreude is an adaptive function that evolved from our need to make social comparisons.  These comparisons, he argues in a new book called The Joy of Pain, allow us to asses our strengths and weaknesses in the social order and thereby determine our social status.  Comparisons, though, can invoke envy, insecurity, and a sense of inadequacy if we find ourselves lacking in one dimension or another compared to someone else. These feelings can then trigger a desire to compete with or knock down those perceived to be superior.  When these desires are fulfilled organically, through no fault of our own, schadenfreude arises. 

The Things We Do: What Obamacare Teaches Us About Consumer Behavior

Roxanne Bauer's picture

How bad would the customer service at your bank have to be for you to switch to another?  How long would you have to sit in a waiting area, reading bad magazines, before you would look for a new doctor?  How about switching health insurance plans?

At the foundation of economics is the premise that people make rational choices, based on the information they have. This may be true, but as a decision becomes more complex, so does our desire to avoid it. According to the literature on economic behavior, this phenomenon is known as consumer inertia.

As Stigler and Becker (1977) state: “the making of decisions is costly, and not simply because it is an activity which some people find unpleasant. In order to make a decision one requires information, and the information must be analyzed. The costs of searching for information and of applying the information to a new situation may be such that habit is often a more efficient way to deal with moderate or temporary changes in the environment than would be a full, apparently utility–maximizing decision” (pg. 82).

​The Things We Do: Is the Culture of Banking Dishonest?

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Despite its relevance to the broader economy of states, there exists little empirical information on the culture of the banking industry. Identifying the effects of business culture poses several challenges because comparing employees in one sector to those in another can be misleading. Some professions may naturally attract different kinds of people, making it tricky to separate cultural factors from individual ones. Moreover, the financial industry is broad and comprised of many different kinds of businesses and institutions, with some more focused on the consumer and others more focused on fiscal details.

Attempting to shed light on the subject, academics from the University of Zurich designed an experiment inspired by the economic theory of identity.  Identity economics states that economic choices are not only based on personal taste but also on what an individual considers to be appropriate.  Whether a choice is appropriate or not depends on a person’s social identity– their sexual orientation, race, religion, occupation, or where they live.

In the experiment, 128 employees from an international bank, with an average of 11.6 years of experience in the financial sector, were split into two groups. About half of the participants worked in a core business unit, like private banking, asset management, trading, or investment management.  The other half worked in support units like human resources or administration. They were randomly assigned to a treatment or control group.

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.

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