Sunday, October 28, 2012

Behavioral science in public safety

A company in India has come up with some great ways to leverage behavioral science to improve public health and safety.  The company is called FinalMile.  This is a great analogy for their strategy because they intervene at the proverbial sharp end of decision making, just when the person is about to make an unsafe choice.  Here are a few examples that I find particular imaginative.

To keep people from walking on train tracks they changed the way train horns are designed and used.  There used to be the usual long slow constant booming tone. This is easy to hear and pretty clear what it means.  Train operators blew it from far away to give people plenty of time to get off the tracks.  But these things violate what we know about behavioral psychology.  If I know I have a long time to get off the tracks, I can keep walking along them because they are more convenient – which is why I was there in the first place.  The long slow tone was also not very visceral.  So they changed it to a series of changing, sharp quick bursts.  This creates a cacophony that is instinctively scary, even if your conscious brain knows what it is.  They also reduced the lead time, so when you hear it, it is louder. And you know you have too little time to think about it, so you get off.

They also replaced the danger signs along the tracks with a photo of a real person running screaming in terror from an oncoming train.  It still tells you what you are supposed to do, but is much more visceral.

They also recognized that a lot of people stop taking medication when their symptoms go away, even when they are still sick.  We have heard of this frequently with antibiotics, but there are other diseases as well, including highly infectious ones.  So these patients don’t get better, spread the disease to others, and develop drug resistance in themselves and drug-resistant disease strains in the population.  Not good.  So they used digital printing and personalization – adding a photo of the patient him or herself looking sick.  It reminds you that you are not really better yet.  I think they could add a second photo (not in the same photo because you don’t want to reduce the clarity of its single focus) that shows you getting other people sick as well.  This exploits our social bonding instincts – none of us want to feel guilty or be blamed by our friends and family (or boss) for getting everyone else sick. 

To improve the use of public trashcans, they used photos of pleasant-looking neighbors throwing trash in the public cans and bad-looking strangers throwing it in street.  This leverages our self-identity resonance (I blogged about this recently here or a technical psych definition here), our social bonding instincts (we want to be as good as our in-group), and our competitive juices (if they can do it, I sure as hell can!!).

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