27 September 2012

Linked in Case Study on Decision Design

After presenting a few established psychological effects in Decision Making Psychology I believe it is time to present a case study of how these effects are used in “real life”. In this light, I will present the “Linked in case study”.

I assume that everyone reading this blog knows about or has an account on Linked in (professional) social network. Similarly I would assume that most of you have a basic account and are not users of the paid accounts. However, if you decide to upgrade your account then you will have to make a decision that will be strongly influenced by the people who designed the decision environment.

In order to see the “decision environment” you can log in your Linked in account and click on the top page link that says “Upgrade” Next I’ll present a picture (screen shot) of that page. (Click to enlarge)

Next I’ll present what I believe to be the elements of decision design used. This presentation will be done in a somehow non-intuitive order, so please bear with me and read to the end.

First, and not the most obvious, what type of linked in account is best is quite hard to evaluate since, especially first time users of premium accounts, don’t have much of an idea what they need or even what the features actually mean. This is a case of Ambiguity and we know that psychological effects in Decision Making occur especially when there is ambiguity.

If one would look at the bottom left of the picture she would find a link that says “Show more”. If that link is clicked on, then instead of 5 attributes (features) of each account one would see 11 attributes.  Why do you think that not all features are presented from the beginning? It might be that those features are not important, but if it is so, why even include them in the list. I believe that many people don’t even click on the “Show more” link and those who do are motivated by their wish to get more or “Full information”. However, the reality is that seeing more attributes of a “product” in fact increases the ambiguity and leads to “information overload”. Both ambiguity and too much information to process are causes for the use of heuristics (rules of thumb) and the occurrence of decision making psychological effects.

One proof that the high (11) number of attributes is meant to make comparisons more difficult is that for 5 out of 11 attributes there are no differences between the three types of accounts. For 2 more attributes there is no difference between two of the three options.

Second, (some of) the attributes of each “product” have quite ambiguous names such as: “Zero in on profiles with Premium Search Filters”. What does that really mean? If one does a “mouse over” there will be a text box that appears and explains what it is. See next picture as an example. (Click to enlarge)

But again, what does that really mean? And moreover, do I need it? How many filters do I really need? The more the better, but is it worth the extra price?

Similarly the attribute “See more profiles when you search” has three options (one in each type of account): 300, 500 and 700. But how many extra profiles in your search do you really need?

Third, offering three types of accounts (plus the ambiguity and information overload mentioned above) creates all conditions for the “compromise” effect (or the “Not Too…, But not Too…” effect). As you remember from the post that described it, the compromise effect leads to the choice of the “middle option”. 

So Linked in wants you to choose the “Business plus” account.

Fourth, one option is already preselected and surprisingly or not it is the same “Business plus” account that is set as adefault choice. As we already know from “Just leave it like that” the default option effect is very strong and most people don’t change a default setting or choice.

Thus Linked in not only makes you think that you want the middle option of “business plus”, but encourages you to make that choice by setting it as a default.

Fifth, we know (from previous posts on this blog) that people do what other people do (check “Despite 30People Witnessed a Crime No One Intervened”) and even more so people like to conform to social rules. Thus, Linked in inserted the word “Recommended” in red and capital letters above the “Business plus” account. 

Now, not only Linked in made you think that you want the “Business plus” by using the compromise effect, and not only did it make it easy for you to choose it by setting it as a default choice, but even more it makes you feel that it is a good decision because it is “Recommended”. One simple question: “Recommended by whom?”

Sixth, the “Business plus” option is highlighted by making the background grey instead of white. One might think that the highlighting is due to the fact that this option is preselected, but when selecting another option the highlighting does not change and the “Business plus” is still highlighted. This highlighting draws the attention and visual focus toward the preferred option of Linked in which is “Business plus”.

Seventh, the sequence in which the account options are presented is very interesting. Usually we tend to start from the cheapest and least complex to the most expensive and complex. However, Linked in does something very smart by reversing the sequence. This reversed sequence from the most complex and expensive to the least complex and cheapest makes use and creates conditions for the occurrence of some psychological effects that some have been presented on this blog, others not. First, there are priming and anchoring effects. By presenting first the most complex and expensive account type the person that sees the options has already been primed with a high value. This creates an interesting effect, namely that the “Business plus” seems a very good deal compared to the “Executive” (most complex and expensive type of account). It is cheaper than the first option read (the executive). If the order would have been from the cheapest (“Business”) to the most expensive, then the “Business plus” would seem expensive in comparison with the first option read (The “Business” which is the cheapest and least complex type of account).

The sequence from the most complex and expensive to the least complex and expensive leads to the appearance of “loss aversion (people hate losing) which was presented in “Hard to saygood bye”. Since a person would see first the benefits (features) of the most complex account, he or she would perceive the decreasing benefits of the second and third account as losses. For example the first feature of the three types of accounts is “Contact anyone directly with InMail”. For the most complex and expensive type of account (Executive) the amount per month is 25. For the second most complex (and what Linked in Recommends) “Business Plus” it is 10, while for the cheapest and least complex type of account (Business) it is 3.

Basically people are “primed” with having 25 “direct InMail” and if they go to a less complex and cheaper account they “Lose” out of that amount. If the sequence of account types would have been the other way around (from the cheapest to the most expensive) then people would have “Gained” more “direct InMail”. We know that losses hurt about twice the amount of pleasure given by a gain, thus it is much smarter to make people believe (consciously or not) that they are losing something by going for the cheaper option.

At the same time, we’ve seen that Linked in wants to sell the “Business plus” and not the “Executive” type of account, this meaning that the use of loss aversion might lead people to go more for the “Executive” account. I believe that this is not a real danger and here is why. The “Business plus” account is 45% cheaper than the “Executive” and this means a lot… maybe people don’t think that they need 25 “direct InMail” each month (by the way that represents more than one per working day – 22 working days in a week). Moreover, there is a very interesting sequence in decreasing the “amount of an attribute” in the three options sequence.

If we look at “Executive” vs. “Business Plus” we see that the difference in the amount of “Direct InMail” (25 for Executive, 10 for Business Plus) is of 60%. However, when we look at the “Business Plus” vs. “Business” (10 for Business Plus, 3 for Business) the difference is 70%. Similarly for the amount of other attributes, the relative difference increases more steeply from the second to the third option in comparison with the decrease from the first to the second option.

Moreover, the relative difference in price is not as steep as the difference for benefits. The “Business Plus” costs 45% less than the “Executive” while the “Business” costs 50% less than the “Business plus”. So even if someone would do a thorough “cost – benefit analysis” the most reasonable option would be the “Business Plus”. Now, you might think why I have used relative measures and not the absolute “Cost per unit of benefit”. The answer is that people are very bad at processing absolute values and think in more relative terms. You can check this out in “Despite Having Huge Salaries, Top Managers Have Immense Bonuses”.

Eighth, the price for an annual contract is expressed in “Per month”. The main effect here is that it makes it easy to compare with the price for the monthly contract which obviously is higher. By making this comparison easy it “helps” people make a choice. Now, the choice is obvious because one is better (cheaper) than the other. At the same time I believe that many people are drawn in to get a yearly contract and maybe they don’t really need it. The second effect that occurs here is called “Pennies per day” and it basically means that prices are presented as a small regular payment and not as a big overall cost. In the case of the “Business Plus account” the price for the annual contract is 29.95 Euros / month, but, in fact the price is 359.4 Euros / year. Of course 29.95 / month seems much cheaper than 359.4 / year.

Another thing about presented prices is that they are excluding VAT which means that to each price presented in bigger font sizes and bolded 19% (at least in The Netherlands) should be added. Now this might not be such a big issue for companies since the VAT is deductible, but for people that actually pay themselves it is a bit of an issue. At the same time, it is true that the price including VAT is presented in smaller font size and the customer does not have to compute it him/her-self.

At the end of this analysis the conclusion is that Linked In wants to sell as many “Business Plus” accounts with an annual contract.

Before ending this post, I’d like to make some observations. I have absolutely nothing against Linked In and in fact I believe it to be a very nice service. The analysis was done from a strictly professional perspective on decision making.

I do not know why Linked in wants to sell that type of account. It could simply be that market research has shown that this is what fits best the needs of most premium account users.

Using Decision Design techniques is neither immoral nor illegal. The advantage of “Libertarian Paternalism” is that it still allows for free choice. In more simple words, even if Linked In encourages the choice of “Business Plus” it does not restrict the liberty of choosing one of the other two types of accounts.

I believe that the above presented case study on Linked In is a very good example of Decision Design (or Choice architecture) that makes use of many “tools” and at the same time it allows for freedom of choice.

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18 September 2012

Just leave it like that

Making a choice is sometimes a hard thing to do. Yes making a choice between two obvious options such as “coffee and beer for breakfast” is not very hard because there is one clear advantage (energy) of one over the other in the given situation (breakfast). At the same time, not all choices are as easy as coffee vs. beer in the morning. In many cases people simply have no clue of what the options in a choice set are. For example for most Europeans there is very little difference (due to lack of information) between a trip to Brisbane and one to Melbourne. What to choose in this case?

Lack of information or just ambiguity is present in choices that are much closer than Brisbane or Melbourne. Take the classical example of organ donation. In essence very few people have and express a clear preference (making a choice) between being or not an organ donor. One key element here is that being an organ donor happens only after the individual’s (cerebral) death. So in the end who cares about being an organ donor since he or she will be dead at that time? But apart for being dead at the moment of actually becoming an organ donor, there are many more elements of ambiguity in this decision such as what does it imply during the life of the individual. Moreover, what is the urgency? Most people, not even the ones that want to get to Heaven, don’t want to die and even fewer think actively about their death. “So Why Hurry? There will be time to do it later.“

Lack of information can take the form of unfamiliarity in the sense of not knowing what’s right or even what criteria to use in evaluating what is right. Take investment plans as an example. The “average Hans” has no idea what is what in the description and in case of making a choice will use some very simple rule of thumb (or Heuristic in a more sophisticated language) such as take the cheapest or the one with the lowest monthly payment.

Another example is invitations to connect on social networks or motivation letters when applying for jobs. By the way, does anyone read the motivation letter attached to a job application??? Now Really? Does anyone read that for any other purpose than making fun of the author? Coming back to not knowing what is appropriate… what is appropriate to write in an invitation or motivation letter? One simple answer would be nothing since if I’m asking someone to connect with me, it is clear what I want to do. Similarly my motivation for applying to a job is that I want that job. But is that fully appropriate? Is it really appropriate to give such a blunt motivation? Or should there be some nice (buzz) words inserted here and there? If so, Which Buzz Words and how to phrase them?

In all the cases mentioned above and many more, some clever (or simply lucky) people have identified what is called the “default option effect”. The default option effect implies the existence of one option that is pre-selected as a default. For example it can be “coffee” in the choice set of beer vs. coffee for breakfast. But this is rather obvious since any reasonable person would consider that most people would choose coffee regardless of which of them is the default.

The default option effect is very powerful in situations where there’s ambiguity. There is data on organ donation that shows how powerful the default option effect is. In countries where the default is NOT to be an organ donor, around 10-20% of people become organ donors. At the same time, in countries where the default option is to BE an organ donor, the number of people who are organ donors is above 95% of the population. In both cases switching from the default option is relatively easy – filling in a form and sending it to the “health authority”. 

Even if the required effort is minimal, most people never switch from the default option. Some might consider that there’s more to country differences than the simple preselected default option. But think of Austria and Germany. They are not very different from a cultural point of view (not to say that there is no difference, but the existing differences are small). At the same time, the difference in enrollment in organ donation is huge with Germany between 10-20% and Austria with more than 90% of the population. The minor cultural differences between Austria and Germany can’t account for the huge difference in enrollment in organ donation.

But let’s leave the organ donation area and go to some examples that are more common. How many times did you change the Linkedin default message when inviting someone to connect? Most likely your answer is below the number of fingers you have. Changing the default message is not that hard and it takes less than 2 minutes to write a nice personalized message. But it’s much easier to “Just leave it like that”.

Remember a few years ago that most subscribing to newsletters had a “yes” default? Soon after doing some form filling, one would end up being subscribed at 30 newsletters. Regulators (firs in the US and then in the EU) said that it should be the other way around, that the default should be “no” and if the person wants to subscribe then he or she should make an active choice. Guess what! Only about 20% of people did in fact actively subscribe to the newsletters.

Up to now, I’ve told you how the default option effect functions. Now let’s turn our attention to why it works. Economists would say that the cost of changing the default option is higher than the benefit obtained through changing to a different option. Now, that makes a lot of sense for some people (yes, economists are people too) but defies common sense. In the case of organ donation the benefit of being or not being an organ donor is relatively difficult to assess, while the effort of filling in a form and mailing it could be for some people with very lucrative professions very high. But let’s use the example of “default subscribing” to newsletters. Is the effort of “one click” higher than the discomfort of receiving unwanted e-mails for years to come? For sure, not even the most convinced economist would be able to justify the high cost of one click.

Another explanation could be that people imply a certain (expert)  recommendation when seeing an option predefined as default. This comes into play especially in choices of very unfamiliar “quasi-technical” options. In the example of choosing an investment plan the “Average Hans” could be thinking that “if someone who knows about this complicated thing says that this – default option – is good, then he or she must know what they are talking about”. Similarly with the social network default invitation text or the default motivation letter for job application, the person using it could think that “If this is what they recommend, then it should be good”.

A more simple explanation is that people simply don’t notice or don’t care too much of a certain choice and simply “leave it like that”. “What do I care if I’m an organ donor or not since at the moment I’ll be dead”.

In some situations, the default option is set with the best intentions for the public or for the consumer. Examples of these “good default options” are the ones with no default subscription to e-mails, with the minimum contribution to a pension plan higher than the minimum required by law and even the default message for inviting someone to connect on Liknedin. The key of the “good default” is that the designer of the decision environment (or choice set) has a similar interest with your own. Consumer protection regulators (should) take the side of the consumers and protect their interests. Linkedin or other social networks gain value by creating highly inter-connected networks which is in a way what you want at least when inviting someone to connect. In other words, both the users and the network have the common goal of creating a connection.

In other situations, the default option is not set entirely in good faith. I’m not suggesting that the person designing the decision environment (choice set) aims at making people making bad choices. What I’m saying is that the designer might only follow his or her (or the firm’s) own interest and that this interest is not necessarily the same as the one of the person making a choice. Let me give you a brief example. Imagine that you need to buy a product, but you don’t know which one is appropriate. The seller will want to sell you the product with the highest margin (profit for him) but you don’t want to buy what is most profitable for the vendor, you want to buy what is good for you. In this case the designer of the choice set will be the seller which will follow his own interest.   

The default option is a very powerful decision design tool and as any tool it can be used in various ways.

Next time when you feel like saying “Leave it like that” maybe it would be good to stop and think some more.

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10 September 2012

Not too…. But not too…

After four posts on “It’s NotDespite; It’s Because”, I’ve decided to come back a bit to decision design or how some other people call it choice architecture.

This post is about how choice can be influenced by the mere composition of the options one to choose from. One very important effect is “the compromise effect”, as scientists call it, or in more plain language, the “Not too… but not too…” effect.

Imagine that by a miracle you end up in a construction materials store and you need to buy polystyrene (which in case you don’t know is a material used for thermo isolation). Now I assume that most of you, the readers of this blog, don’t know too much about polystyrene and don’t worry. That’s how it should be… after all knowledge on polystyrene is something that most people can live without. Coming back to the store, you find three types of polystyrene available at the sore and these are:

Polystyrene A. 10 cm thick and costs 15 euros/ pack
Polystyrene B. 15 cm thick and costs 20 euros / pack
Polystyrene C. 20 cm thick and costs 25 euros / pack

Since most people would understand very little from this choice set, they would simply say something like: “Hey! I have no idea what these things mean, but I know that 15 is bigger (better) than 10 and that 20 is bigger (better) than 15. On one hand I don’t want the most expensive thing, while on the other hand, I’d better not buy the cheapest thing either. So… I guess the 15 cm one priced at 20 euros is a good choice.”

This is the basic reasoning going on behind the “not too… but not too…”. However, let’s forget a second about the choice set in that store and imagine that you have the following choice set:

Polystyrene B. 15 cm thick and costs 20 euros / pack
Polystyrene C. 20 cm thick and costs 25 euros / pack
Polystyrene D. 25 cm thick and costs 30 euros / pack

If our buyer would apply the same line of reasoning he or she would end up buying the 20 cm thick one priced at 25 euros.

You might think that this effect is consistent only for polystyrene which most people never buy, but this is not actually the case. The compromise or “not too… but not too…” reasoning is found and is consistent in many cases. At the same time you are right in the sense that there are some limitations to it. This effect does not occur when there is a very clear preference that the buyer has. So if you have to choose from 3 brands of juice, but you have a very clear preference for one of them, the effect does not occur. 

Similarly, when a buyer has extensive knowledge on the products characteristics and knows what he or she needs, then the effect will not occur. In other words, if our buyer is a constructions engineer, he or she will know that beyond 20 cm thickness, there is very little added benefit in thermo isolation, thus will ignore any option that is above this value. In addition, the engineer will know based on what the walls of the house that will be thermo-isolated are made of what type of polystyrene to buy.

The compromise effect occurs when we make infrequent purchases such as barbeque grills or refrigerators. It also occurs when the decision is made in an unfamiliar environment. Imagine that you’re on vacation in Bulgaria where they use the Cyrillic alphabet, thus you wouldn’t understand much of what’s written on products or labels. You don’t know the products in the choice set and you can’t really get too much information. Then… it will be a case of “not too… but not too…”.   

The key element here is how to design the choice set. What is the middle option in it?

In case you want a real life example, look at the choice options in Albert Heijn stores… usually it is something like this:

Euroshopper (the cheapest brand)
AH (the brand of the retailer or private label as it is formally called)
One or two branded products priced very closely

Pricing is exactly in this order… 

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Despite Having Huge Salaries, Top Managers Have Immense Bonuses … It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE! (4)

After the economic downturn in 2008 – 2009 it has come to public attention that top managers, particularly in the financial sector, have both huge salaries and immense bonuses. This was followed by a wave of public outrage and indignation. The wave even transformed into a protest movement that went against the top 1% of people who have huge income.

In this post, I will not focus on the public outrage, nor will I try to explain why top managers have bonuses. I guess that it is an old and in my opinion flawed way of reasoning that giving high financial incentives will increase someone’s job performance. If it works or not is still under debate.

What I want to focus on is the magnitude of both salaries and bonuses. Most people that are outraged by the immense bonuses that top managers get think something like: “What do they need bonuses for when they already have huge salaries. I have to work for half a year to earn what this guy makes in a week. What do they need the bonus for when they earn more than anyone could spend”.

Is this outrage justified? I guess so, especially when one was brought up in the philosophy of social equality. I guess that the source of outrage is not especially the absolute sum that top managers get, but rather that they screwed up.

Now, let’s leave the top management obscene bonuses and salaries and engage in what scientists call “Thought experiment”.

Imagine yourself in the following situation: you want to buy a nice new suit and go shopping. After exploring the options in the city center shopping area, you decide to buy a suit that costs 300 Euros. Just before you take it in your hands to go to the cash register, an alien drops out of the sky and sits on your shoulder. The alien tells you that exactly the same suit is on sale at the mall right outside town (30 minutes drive) for 240 Euros. What do you do?
Most people think something like this: “Saving 60 Euros out of 300 just for a half an hour drive, sure! Let’s go there!”

Now, forget everything about the suit and money. Clear your head and let’s do another thought experiment. Imagine that you want to buy a car. You’ve saved some money and decided to get a new car since the old one turned 20 last February. You go to a dealer in the East of the City and look at all those gorgeous pieces of technology. Yes you can imagine yourself driving casually in one of them on a sunny Sunday afternoon and the trunk is big enough to fit in all your (significant other’s) shopping bags.

You go to the sales agent (or consultant as they like to call themselves) and ask how much is the car that you so much can imagine it to be yours. The “consultant” that this is your lucky day because this week there is a Limited Offer and you can buy the car for ONLY 18.990 Euros (yes… psychological price and a lot of bull sh*t sales talk). In that moment a flash appears in the sky and an alien comes and sits on your shoulder. The alien tells you that exactly the same car you want to buy is available at a dealer in the south of the town (30 minutes drive) for 18.930 Euros. What do you do?

Most people think something like this: “What?!? I’m spending over 18.000 euros here and you expect me to drive for half an hour just to get a 60 Euros discount? No way! It’s not worth the effort.”

OK. Now, let’s cool down and breathe. In the first scenario, the alien brought super good news. Our shopper was happy to drive for half an hour to the mall outside town to buy the suit and save 60 Euros. “Man, 60 euros is not spare change!”. In the second scenario the alien was just annoying and really spoiled the magic moment of purchasing a car. How could have the alien suggested that is in any way rational to drive for half an hour just to save 60 Euros???

Again, let’s switch on reasoning. In both scenarios the buyer would have saved 60 Euros at the price of driving for 30 minutes. But in one scenario he was happy to do so, while in the second he was annoyed even by hearing the suggestion. Is this guy stupid or what? After all 60 Euros are 60 Euros and they can buy exactly the same things in either situation.

The key is in the (undiscounted) price of the purchase. In the first case, the guy was buying a 300 euros suit and 60 Euros is a lot when compared to 300. It’s 20%. Who in their right mind would not go to the cheaper shop? In the second case, the guy was buying a car priced at 18.990 Euros. Now 60 euros compared to 18.990 is virtually nothing, or at best some spare change. It’s just 0.3%, who cares about that?

Both rationales tend to make sense, but at the same time, they seem flawed. They make sense if we acknowledge that humans aren’t good at processing absolute values, but are OK processing relative values. It’s hard to understand what 60 Euros means in different contexts. In the “suit” context it means a nice “going out for pizza”, while in the “car” context it means “yeah… whatever”.

Going back to the top managers that have both huge salaries and immense bonuses, now we can better understand the correlation between the magnitude of both steady pay and incentive. If one has a salary of 1 million euros a bonus of 500.000 would mean a lot and in the unlikely case of bonuses actually increasing job performance it will motivate that person to do more. At the same time, if one has a salary of 10 million euros per year, of course a bonus of 500.000 would mean “nothing” and in order to motivate him or her, the bonus would need to be around 5 – 5.5 million.

You might wonder why I said 5-5.5 million. If the first guy gets 1 million and a 0.5 million bonus is good enough, it should be 10 times more if the salary is 10 times bigger. It’s not exactly like that. When talking about large values people don’t perceive differences proportional. Let me give an example. It is obvious that 10 is twice as big as 5. But when talking about 10 million light years the distance is not perceived as twice the distance of 5 million light years. It is perceived as less than double. This means that in order to motivate someone at the level of 5 million Euros, one would need to incentivize that person with slightly more than 5 million (maybe 5.5 million).

A very brief point on why are people outraged by the huge bonuses and salaries, is that they use their own reference points and not the super-rich manager’s reference point. Normal people think something like this “If I can make a living with 20.000 Euros per year, and I work my ass off, why do they need 20 million per year just to do their job?”. However, really rich people lost sense of the magnitude of money. Don’t worry, they also have shoes, but they simply don’t buy them from “Van Haren”, rather they buy from Versace. If you ask them if they believe that they are paid fairly, some of them would even say that they deserve a raise. As a friend of mine said: “you get used very easily and fast to the good life”.

To sum up, this is the basic explanation why people with huge salaries also have immense bonuses. It is not Despite they have huge salaries, it’s Because they have huge salaries that they need immense bonuses to get motivated.

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6 September 2012

Despite Working in Very Personal Domains People Talk in a Very Impersonal Manner … It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE! (3)

Have you noticed that people that have jobs in very personal domains usually talk using very impersonal words? For example doctors use terms like “the patient” or “the subject” and police people use terms like “the suspect” or “the victim”. Military personnel refer to dead soldiers as being KIA (acronym for killed in action) and they use the term of “theater of operations” when talking about a battlefield. Even other professions have their jargon: recruiters refer to people seeking for a job as “candidates” or “applicants” while teachers use “students”.  Although these words clearly refer to a person they are at least one step away from the notions of “Human being” or “person”.

It could be said that despite working in very personal domains, people use very impersonal words. And, you have guessed that: It’s not despite; It’s because.

Let’s take the more severe cases of professions like medics, police and military. Imagine that you are a police man or woman. You work 8 hour shifts every day. With whom do you interact all day long, every day? I guess most people never asked themselves this question. A police man or woman has to deal all day long with two categories of people: First there are the victims of crime. Clearly when interacting with a police man or woman, the victim of crime is not exactly cheerful and happy. After all why would you go to the police when everything is fine? Second there are the criminals or delinquents. Usually these are the scrap of society. Usually they are people with traumas in their past that became felons. Usually they are of below average intelligence, uneducated and in brief, not exactly a nice company.

Now, let’s think about doctors. All (working) day long they have to deal with people that are suffering. Yes, of course, there are some exceptions like pregnant women that are fine but just go a regular check and there are very health-conscious people that are in perfect shape and just what the reassurance of a professional and have regular check-ups. However, these are exceptions and in a medic’s daily life there is a lot of pain and suffering to deal with.

Now, let’s think about military personnel, particularly higher ranks. What is the job of these people? In a word: “To KILL”. Yes there is a lot of nice talk about preventing conflict and a lot of “mumbo-jumbo”, but in the end the military exists to destroy and kill. I remember one line from a movie about World War I where a soldier said that “a general’s job is to send people to their death”.

Even less critical professions have less pleasant moments. Teachers have to fail students if their performance is not good enough. Recruiters have to tell people that they did not get the job for which they went to 3 interviews and filled in 100 forms.

Imagine how it would be for a police person to think of a delinquent in the following terms:

The poor guy who was conceived in an alley by a drunken man and a drugged prostitute. The poor kid that spent most of his childhood in the same room where his mother brought in “customers”. The guy that by the age of 7 preferred to sleep in the street because his father would rape him whenever he didn’t beat him with a steel pipe. The kid that by the age of 13 was injecting heroin in his penis because he couldn’t find any other vein.

More or less, that’s the past of the “regular client” of the police. You almost feel sorry for that person, but if you are a police man or woman you still have to catch him and send him to justice. Isn’t it simply easier to call him “the suspect”? It’s not a human being that never got a chance in life and now has become a threat to the people that actually had a chance. It’s a SUSPECT.

What about a woman that had a perfectly normal life with a good boyfriend and that was raped by a delusional punk that has severe brain damage from drugs and thinks that all women want to have sex with him even if they don’t know it yet? Her life will never be the same again and it will take years of healing and psychological therapy to even let another man to touch her. Even if she and her boyfriend were considering getting married, they will eventually split up, because of the trauma.  Isn’t easier to call her “The Victim”?

Imagine you are a commanding officer in the army and in a conflict you sent Jim, Hans, Patrick, Carl, John, Guido and Vergil in a mission. They all get killed and Patrick’s son will never see his father since he was born after his father left for the army. Hans’s wife will cry for more than a year and John’s mother is alone at the age of 80. Carl was the only “bread earner” of the family and no his wife will have to work and take care of the 5 children. Wouldn't it be easier to say and think that 7 soldiers were KIA than to really acknowledge what has happened?

What if you are a recruiter and you have to reject a person who if doesn’t get the job loses the house in which their 3 children live? It’s much easier to say that “the candidate” was rejected.

Put yourself in the shoes of a teacher. Svetlana couldn’t complete her assignment and now she will fail the course and subsequently lose the scholarship she has and she will not be able to complete her studies. Moreover, since she will not be able to complete the studies her student visa will be canceled and she will be deported. You have to fail her, because objectively she does not deserve to pass the course. But it’s much better to fail a “Student” than to fail Svetlana.  

Think about doctors who everyday have to deal with suffering, hope and despair. Yes, that cute 9 years old girl that is so funny and so full of life has bone cancer and there’s nothing YOU can do. In less than 6 months her fragile body will be decomposing in a graveyard.

I have given you a few (kind of extreme) examples of what’s going on in the working life of people that have very personal professions. These are just examples. I have to admit that some are a bit extreme, but they are representative. And… you got only one for each! You read about ONE “Suspect”, about ONE “VICTIM”, about ONE instance of “KIA” Soldiers, about ONE “Candidate”, about ONE “Student” and about ONE “Patient”

Imagine 10 each and every day! Can you take it?

It is not despite working in very personal domains that people use these impersonal words. It is because they work in very personal domains that people NEED to create a distance so that they can do the work they have to do. Doctors need to be able to treat people and honestly if they heal them who cares if they refer to people as “Patients”. Police people need to maintain order and fight crime and for most of society what’s the difference if they say “Suspect” or “Victim” if in the end crime is at a reasonable level.

Not even bright and highly trained people can handle the amount of pressure that one such professional has to deal with every day. Doctors are usually very smart people and highly educated, but even they need to distance themselves from all the “bad that surrounds them”. Military personnel are highly trained professionals, but even the general that has 1000 medals on his chest can’t put up with 10000 dead young men in the mud.

It’s not despite that they have highly personal professions that people communicate in a very impersonal manner; It is Because.

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Despite Living in a Homophobic Society, Heterosexual Men Hug and Have Close Physical Contact in Public … It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE! (2)

Although some societies have accepted homosexuality, there are still many societies that consider it as an unnatural, devilish thing or simply have a problem with accepting it as a fact of life. I believe that it would be safe to assume that social attitudes towards homosexuality are somewhere on the continuum between Iran and The Netherlands

In Iran, officially (at least according to the president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) there is no homosexuality. Considering that Iran has a population of around 75 million it is hard to believe that there are absolutely zero gay men or lesbian women. Despite the relatively uniform distribution of homosexuals in the global population, officially homosexuality does not exist in Iran. Let’s say that Iran is one prototype of homophobic society.

At the other end of the continuum is The Netherlands which has a very open and accepting society. The Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriages in 2001. Living in this beautiful country I see that same sex couples have absolutely no problem in making it public that they are homosexuals. It is normal to see same sex couples holding hands or kissing in public. Similarly no one is surprised to know that same sex couples live together.

To some people what I’ve just wrote above is trivial, but for people coming from societies that are less accepting with homosexuality, it would be at least surprising to see these things happening.

This post is not about how societies should be or whether homosexuality should be accepted or not. Both those in favor of accepting it and those against it have very strong arguments (or at least in their opinion). What I want to talk about in this post is a remark made by a Dutch instructor (for one of the courses I took in the last 2 years). 

He said that he is surprised that in more homophobic societies such as Turkey or the ones from the Balkans heterosexual men have a lot of physical contact in public. When men get together for a friendly meeting such as having a coffee and smoking the water pipe with friends they tend to have a physical interaction that goes beyond a “manly” hand shake. What they do is that they hug as a form of greeting or of saying good bye.  Many times they also kiss on the cheek when saying hello or good bye. 

This is kind of surprising since the social norms in these countries are against same sex relationships. A gay couple would be at least socially excluded if they would exhibit physical interaction such as holding hands or kissing. Now, I’m trying to be moderate here by saying “social exclusion”… this is what it is polite to say. Unfortunately, in homophobic societies, homosexuals that make public their sexual orientation have to face much more unpleasant things like public humiliation, beatings or even criminal charges and punishments.

So it’s a bit puzzling why heterosexual men in homophobic societies are so physically friendly with other men. It’s almost “Despite living in a homophobic society, heterosexual men are so physically friendly with other men”. And yes, you’ve got it! It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE!

To better understand why it’s not despite; it’s because, let’s look at the other end of the continuum of homosexuality acceptance in society, namely to heterosexual men in The Netherlands. In this very accepting society, heterosexual men barely have physical interaction among themselves. Usually when two heterosexual men meet they shake hands. That’s it! When they say “Good bye” there is just a hand shake. No hugging, no kissing on the cheek. Of course, there are exceptions in case of extreme drunkenness and when the National Football team actually wins a game at a big football tournament. However these exceptions occur only when self-control is close to zero due to alcohol or extreme emotions of joy and amazement. (At Euro 2012, the Dutch Football team was a big disappointment).  

Again, it’s a bit puzzling, right? In this case, it would be “Despite living in an accepting society heterosexual men are not so physically friendly with other men”. And, YES… It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE!

Before revealing the “secret” explanation, I’d like to take you to the (apparent) paradox of suntan. In brief, there are two types of countries. The ones that get a lot of Sun and those don’t. Think of countries like the UK, Iceland, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Estonia etc. Most likely what pops into your mind when mentioning these countries is far from “Sunny”… Actually, how would it sound “Sunny Norway”? It’s a bit of an oxymoron. Now, think of Spain, India, Thailand, Cyprus etc. Now, “Sunny Cyprus” sounds natural.  

As you might have guessed by now, attitudes towards suntan are very different in the two groups of countries. Moreover, not only attitudes, but the social meaning of suntan is very different. Let me explain a bit.

In countries that lack sunlight having a suntan means that the person is wealthy enough to go on long and expensive holydays abroad. In countries that benefit from abundant sunlight having a suntan means that one has to work all day long in the sunshine most likely on a field.  In different societies the same thing – having a suntan – means exactly opposite things and transmits different information about a person. So if in Norway having a suntan means that you are rich, and in India means that you are poor, isn’t it normal for people to behave differently with regard to suntan?

Rich people in Scotland show that they are rich by getting as much suntan as possible, while rich people in India show that they are rich by whitening their skin as much as possible (meaning that they can afford not to work).

Now, coming back to the behavior of heterosexual men in homophobic and accepting societies, the situation is quite similar to the one regarding suntan. Heterosexual men need to show that they are heterosexual. I’m not implying that it is wrong to show that one is homosexual. It’s simply a matter of social communication of one’s sexual orientation. More so, on the “mating market” sexual orientation is one very basic piece of information. Heterosexual men will want to be in the same “mating market place” as heterosexual women, while homosexual men or women want to be in the same “mating market place” as homosexual men or women. So, communicating one’s sexual orientation is crucial in social interaction. Thankfully people don’t ware signs on their foreheads with their sexual orientation. Behavior is a much better indicator, especially behavior in social groups.

The relationship between wealth and suntan and the relationship between sexual orientation and physical interaction among men are very similar. If we translate them into abstract terms it would be something like this: an individual wants to transmit to others (an “audience”) a piece of information (wealth or sexual orientation) about him /her-self. The means used to transmit this information are under the contingency of the social norms of the group or society the individual and the “audience” are members of.

In a society that benefits form a lot of sunlight, having a suntan means that a person in poor. If that person would not be poor and would not need to work 12 hours on the field, he or she could afford to stay indoors, with air conditioning and buy cosmetic products that make the skin whiter. More so, if that person would have been very, very (almost obscenely) rich he or she could have taken a long vacation in Norway (during winter).

Similarly in a homophobic society a man that hugs and kisses on the cheek other men is heterosexual. If that person would have not been heterosexual, first of all other men would not interact with him, second he would not have dared to come close to heterosexual men since they would mistreat him if they found out that he was homosexual.

In homophobic society men that hug and kiss on the cheek HAVE TO BE heterosexual since a homosexual men would NOT DARE to show in public physical interaction with other homosexual men.

In an accepting society homosexual men (and women) are free to show in public physical interaction with other homosexual men (and women). This means that heterosexual men will restrict to a hand shake to show that they are heterosexuals.

It is not despite, it is because!

4 September 2012

Despite 30 People Witnessed a Crime No One Intervened… It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE! (1)

Did you ever hear or read in the news a title like “Despite the presence of many witnesses, no one called the police or intervened”? Have you felt a bit of outrage when learning about such an event? This is a clear case of “It’s Not DESPITE; It’s BECAUSE!”

There are some real life events that one can read about in various books when something bad happened in the plain sight of many other people and no one did anything. Perhaps the best known (at least in the psychology literature) case is Catherine Susan "Kitty" Genovese (you can read here on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Kitty_Genovese ).

In brief, what happened is that this lady was murdered in front of about 40 people and no one did anything. There are many other cases similar to this one. I remember about one in Liverpool where one child was abducted, tortured and killed by two other boys and many people saw the two older kids carrying the younger one, but no one did anything. Of course these extreme cases get a lot of media attention and coverage, but there are many more instances of less violent crimes such as theft that are committed in the presence of many witnesses and, in a nut shell, no one does anything about it.

I remember a story on the TV news when someone tried to steal his own bike for 2 hours in the center of Bucharest and no one did anything about it. Note: Unlike in The Netherlands, stealing a bike in Romania is not socially acceptable (however, stealing money from the public budget is).

The most usual reaction to this kind of information – despite the fact that the crime happened in the plain sight of 30 people, no one did anything – is to be horrified of the ill character of the witnesses. The most common reaction goes something like this:

What’s wrong with these people? WHO are they?? Huh?They have no heart! They are all jerks and they should be hanged! What kind of world do we live in?

After taking a glass of water (or beer) and cooling down a bit, let’s switch on reasoning. Who are these people? They can be basically anyone. These crimes don’t happen in a mental hospital where most degenerate people tend to cluster. They take place in the neighborhood, at the shopping mall, in a parking lot, on a bus and even in the center of a city like Bucharest which by the way is much safer than it is believed to be.

So, if the witnesses are not hand-picked from the less than 1% of the population with severe psychological problems, what is that drives this behavior or more exactly the lack of action?

Before giving the answer to that question, I want to point out the main fallacy in the outrage generated by “despite 30 people watching no one did anything”. People who hear about these events assume that people behave the same when they are alone and when they are in a group (even a group formed perfectly randomly). The people that are outraged see 30 individuals, but not a group of 30 people.

I guess, you figured out what the explanation is. It is BECAUSE 30 people witnessed a crime that no one intervened. If there would be only 1 witness then he or she would intervene or at least call the police (112 by the way).

What is happening here is a bit more complex phenomenon, but it can be simplified into two big elements. First, realizing that there is a crime or other bad thing going on and Second, finding the appropriate response to the new situation. These two components are not independent; rather they are very strongly linked.

Let’s take the first component. What seems clear post-factum such as a murder or the theft of a bike is not that clear while it happens, especially from a distance. Of course, if anyone would see a lynching happening one meter in front of them, it would be clear. At the same time these crimes or bad things are not so clear. 

For example if anyone would pass by someone who is trying to force a bike lock, what would go through that person’s mind? At least for one thing, our observer should in fact observe the act of forcing the lock, which is not as easy as it would seem. Think about when you are in a hurry to get to a job interview, how much of what’s happening on the street do you observe? Not that much. Now, assuming that our witness would actually observe the act, what would be his first thought about it? “Oh.. the poor guy lost his key and now needs to pick the lock”.

Similarly, if one hears a scream from a neighboring house why assume that there is any violence such as someone smashing the other’s fingers with a hammer happening. It could have been the TV, or maybe they have wild sex… yeah… that’s it! Or maybe it’s just the “perfectly normal” conjugal release of negative energies through screaming once in a while.

Truly, bad things happen not that often. Yes, we do here on the news about crimes and watch crime series, but in day to day life we encounter much fewer “bad things”. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that what you see is nothing serious.

Making a brief step sideway, do you remember how many analysts have explained how the last financial crisis + big recession came to be AFTER it occurred? On the other hand there were very few voices that PREDICTED the economic “F*ck up”.

Now, coming back to the bad things happening in plain sight, I guess you agree that most of the times it’s not that easy to realize that something really bad is happening. More so, imagine that you would be a good citizen and go to your screaming neighbor’s door and ring the bell. Then your neighbor answers the door with very few clothes on and with a visible excitation on his face… would you feel bad? As far as you can tell you’ve just interrupted amazing sex…

To sum up the first component of “despite 30 people witnessed, no one did anything” it’s not as easy as it seems to spot a bad thing happening. Yes! It is obvious once it happened and you KNOW it happened, but it’s much harder to see it WHEN it happens.

The second component that explains “despite 30 people witnessed, no one did anything” is called the “bystander effect” and it occurs even when the bad thing is obvious. Let’s imagine that Joe is a normal regular church going moral guy. Joe goes on holyday and stays in line to buy a ticket for a museum. There are 3 lines of people waiting to buy a ticket and just in front of Joe, a guy cuts the purse of the lady in front of him and takes her wallet. Joe is not the only guy to witness this, other people see it also and everyone does nothing. Do you think that our church going regular guy would do anything? Regardless of what you thought the answer is that about 8.5 out of 10 Joes would simply do nothing.

In the case presented above, there is no doubt that something wrong is happening – a thief steals a wallet. However, our Joe will do nothing simply because there are other people around that saw what happened and they did nothing. Humans tend to mimic each other’s behavior and more so when in a group. 

The saying of “when in Rome, do like the Romans do” is the essence of this behavior. After all, WHY stand out? If everyone else does something, then it means that that is the “appropriate” behavior. For sure these people know better, right? This is most applicable when the “Joe” is in an unfamiliar environment such as Joe being a tourist or just moved to a new neighborhood.
In a nut shell: in a novel situation we infer the appropriate behavior  by observing the people around us.

Another element that is involved here is “deferring responsibility”. WHY SHOULD I call the police? It’s not my business. The crossest person should call the police or that man in that (cheap) uniform. In group situations it is not clear who has what responsibilities. After all… WHY should YOU? Another form of rejecting responsibility is to infer that some else called the police (or whatever), when in fact no one did. “If there are so many people gathered here, for sure someone called the police”.

There can be an interaction between realizing that a bad thing is happening and copying others' behavior. If others don't react then it means that there is nothing wrong.

The bystander effect is a very interesting and somehow counterintuitive phenomenon. In very small groups it usually does not occur. If there are two people witnessing something bad, then most likely one or both would intervene. But when there are more people it is likely that no-one intervenes. The larger the group, the more likely it is for no one to intervene. So it is not DESPITE 1000 people witnessed, it is BECAUSE 1000 people witnessed.

Until now, I’ve talked about bad or evil things such as theft or murder. Unfortunately the bystander effect does not occur only in these somehow severe negative situations. It occurs in much more likely to encounter situations. Imagine that you receive a mass e-mail that was sent to the entire school, department, firm etc. asking for a recommendation of something. Most people would imagine that SOMEONE ELSE will answer. After all, why should you answer? Probably someone else did.    

Another example is in class rooms during courses or at events when the teacher or speaker wants to have some interaction and asks a question to the audience. If in the next 5 seconds after asking the question no one answers, then most likely no-one will do. This is more so when asking “did you understand?” or “are there any unclear things?”

What can be done to counter-balance the bystander effect? For once, it is important to KNOW that it is not despite 30 people were present no one did anything, but rather, because. However, simply knowing would not help much. What I believe would help is to assign responsibilities. If you are o victim or if you just want a recommendation for something, Be Personal, in the sense of saying “You, in the red shirt, call 112” or “Please John, can YOU recommend me a …”. People do not react or intervene not because they are bad or unwilling to help (in fact people are very willing to help). They are bystanders because everyone else does so and they don’t want to break the rule of the group. However, if help is requested from a particular person (the one in the red shirt), then that person would (most likely) be happy to help.

In order to diminish the bystander effect another line of action can be taken, namely learning. The key element in the bystander effect is that people don’t know what the “appropriate” behavior is and they infer it by observing and mimicking other people. “Bad thing” situations are somehow novel and ambiguous implying that people don’t really know what to do. Simply teaching and rehearsing the appropriate behavior will lead to a considerable reduction of this unfortunate effect. 

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