31 July 2014

Behavioral Design Trick for Human Resources - Job Descriptions and Recruitment Adds

Looking for a job is not an easy task even in times of economic growth. Sometimes, finding a job is a full time job in itself, only without pay.

There are people who are willing to relocate in order to find a job that suits them well and, in Europe, this implies dealing with linguistic diversity. Most (working age) Europeans speak at least one more language than their mother tongue (usually English, German or French), but this is not a full proof quality in an area of huge linguistic diversity.

Somehow, in all job descriptions, in the “requirements” section, the languages one is required to be proficient in are placed at the end of the list.

A job seeker goes through the job description and at one point focuses on the requirements to see if she fits the profile. She sees things like “master level education”, “five years’ work experience in a similar position” and “good knowledge of MS office” 

she thinks 

“Got it”; “Got it : )“, “Got that too : ) : ) :)”; “This looks nice! I really think I have a good chance of getting the job”.

After all these positive thoughts and (usually futile) hope, our job seeker sees on the last bullet point of required skills: “Working proficiency in Norwegian / Hebrew / Estonian etc.”

Why can’t these language requirements be placed at the beginning of the list? After all being proficient in Czech or Norwegian is a very tough selection criterion!

But in the end, who cares about the feelings of job seekers?   

29 July 2014

The Future of Applied Behavioural Science Will NOT Be About Behavioural Science

It’s been quite some time since behavioural science and its applications have reached mainstream media or at least have left the academic environment. There are books, NGOs, governmental organizations and private companies who apply the insights of behavioural science (or at least claim to do so).

Naturally there is a question on the future of applied behavioural science and I dare make a prediction (which I usually restrain myself).

My prediction is that

The future of Applied Behavioural Science will not be about Behavioural Science.

Now, don’t jump off your seat and don’t close this page. It will make sense very soon!

In order to get a very good understanding of this (possible and very probable) future we need to take a look to the past; not that of behavioural science, but of construction – the act of building.

One thousand years ago people were building houses, castles, monuments, cathedrals etc. We assume (wrongly) that those edifices were built using the same principles as the ones used today: designing, sketching, computing dimensions and using information on the resistance of various materials etc. In a nutshell these could be summarized in what we know today as (Newtonian) Physics and (Euclidian) Geometry.

The reality is, however, a bit different. One thousand years ago, there were very few people who had formal knowledge of Euclidian geometry and Newtonian physics simply didn’t exist. Most of the building done at the time was based on knowledge acquired through vicarious learning (stumbling upon something that works) and through trial and error.

Coming back to applied behavioural science, the situation is quite similar. Formal knowledge in the field is relatively new in historical terms (approx. 50 years), but what can be seen as applications of behavioural science date long before the formal knowledge existed. Advertisers, sales people and others stumbled upon things that work (such as social proof, anchoring etc.) and used them in practice long before researchers studied these phenomena.   

At one point in history, builders got acquainted with formal knowledge of Euclidian geometry and Newtonian Physics and found these insights extremely useful for their work – building. Many of the builders incorporated this knowledge from geometry and physics into their work and, I guess, some of them communicated things like:

Hey! I’m a special builder because I use Euclidian Geometry and Newtonian Physics in my work!

Now (in 2014) we are in a similar stage with applied behavioural science. Various companies, organizations, individuals (including myself) etc. say that they are special because they use behavioural science.

But, in a few (my guess 5) years the novelty and wow-factor of (applied) behavioural science will fade away. Exactly as the novelty and wow-factor of using geometry and physics in building vanished centuries ago.

The future will bring behavioural science into the “implied” area of various activities. I guess nowadays you expect the builder of your house to know geometry and (basic) physics and would not contract someone who doesn’t.

The future of applied behavioural science will be about doing things much better and not about applying scientific knowledge. Applying the insights of behavioural science will be implied.

The key issue is to identify the areas where behavioural science can really make a difference and get a head-start. We already know that it can be used in public policy (design) – see the Behavioural Insights Team, in public space design – see the activity of the Danish Nudging Network, in market research – see BrainJuicer and Invivo-BVA, marketing communication – See Ogilvy and overall service design (yes, me).

The value of the applications of behavioural science resides in the increased efficiency and effectiveness it brings to already existing activities. For example, public policy existed long before the BIT existed, while market research was a mature field when BrainJuicer entered the market.

The value of behavioural science applied in the above mentioned fields resides in higher effectiveness of the money spent from the public budget and, respectively, in better predictive value of market research endeavours.

If we (behavioural science enthusiasts) are to survive the future, we need to pick out a field where the application of behavioural science will lead to an increase of efficiency, effectiveness and quality.

I go for (Behavioural) Service Design. Where do you go?   

If you want to stay posted with what I'm writing, please 

16 July 2014

Five Books Related to Behavioral Science that You Probably Missed

When it comes to books on (applied) behaviroal science, titles such as  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman capture the headlines and are top of mind.

There are, however, some other great books on or related to behavioral science that somehow fall under the radar. Here are five of them

Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It) by William Poundstone

William Poundstone is a journalist, not a behavioral scientist. Although I became allergic to books written by non-academics, I have to admit that Priceless is The Best Book on Behavioral Science I read so far. Yes! It is better than the all famous Thinking Fast and Slow, at least in my opinion.

William Poundstone does a great job in summarizing a huge array of academic research in Behavioral Science and writes in a very human-accessible way. Now, Priceless is not popular science, it’s not a book to read while sitting on the toilet. It keeps science intact and links it to real life situations.

Second and third are two books that go together very well.

The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think by Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior by Geoffrey Miller

These two books bring the evolutionary psychology perspective to human behaviour. Although they don’t have huge practical value, their beauty comes from giving very nice explanations for what is often seen as irrational behaviour. These two books simply cast a new light on human behaviour and remind us that, in the end, we are all products of evolution (natural and sexual selection).

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

N.N. Taleb is known mostly for The Black Swan and recently for Antifragile. Fooled by randomness is Taleb’s first book and to be honest it is much more humane than The Black Swan. Although a bit old, Fooled by Randomness is a wonderful read.

The book is not necessarily about behavioral science, but it gives great illustrations of cognitive biases in everyday life.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

Poor Economics is a great collection of (potential solutions) for alleviating poverty and includes many Nudge like approaches. Although it is more economics than behavioral, this book gives a very practical approach to the use of findings from behavioral science.

I couldn’t make a reading list without including

Naturally I’m biased when evaluating this book, but I do recommend it because it is one of the very few books which explains (in depth) the psychological mechanisms that are behind the main findings from behavioral science. 

14 July 2014

Being Second Best Sucks ... Orange Fever in The Netherlands

The 2014 Football World Cup is now over. Germany won the trophy after winning over Argentina in the final.

Here, in The Netherlands, we had about one month of “Orange (Oranje) Fever” (see pics below) with everything, except the grass, being orange. Considering that The Netherlands is a small country with less than 17 million people, I dare to say that the National Football team did very well at both this World Cup and the previous one (South Africa 2010).

Four years ago, Oranje were second best (losing the final to Spain), while this year they were third best after winning over Brazil in the “small final”. Thank you Oranje!

Judging by the reactions of the Dutch players after being second in 2010 and third in 2014, the conclusion is that being third is better than being second best.

The conclusion stands even if we focus only on the games this year. The Dutch were quite happy after getting the third place in the World cup, while the Argentinians were devastated after getting the second place. The Argentinian captain, the famous Lionel Messi was truly upset even if he was awarded the golden ball trophy for the best player of the tournament.

If we would be thinking with our feet in cold water (system 2), I guess it would be quite obvious that being second is better than being third. But emotions aren’t all that straightforward.

In a (now famous) study by Medvec, VictoriaHusted; Madey, Scott F.; Gilovich, Thomas published in the Journal of Personalityand Social Psychology in 1995, the researchers found that at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona the bronze medals winners were happier than the silver medallists.

The authors attribute this to counterfactual thinking or, in simpler words, “What could have been”. Silver medallists think that they could have won the gold while the bronze medallists are happy to just get a medal.

In the Football World Cup the effect is even more pronounced since the silver medallists (this year Argentina, four years ago Oranje) get their medals after losing the final; whereas the bronze medallists get their medals after winning the last game (“small final”).

Thank you again Oranje and maybe in 2018 you will be even happier than now (after winning third place).

Orange Fever Pics  

Yes! I had Orange Fever as well

10 July 2014

Emotional Re-framing the Danish Way

A while back I wrote a blogposton Emotional Re-framing which, in a nutshell, means re-framing a piece of information in such a way that its emotional load and valence is changed. Subsequently this leads to a change in judgment.

During my recent visit to Copenhagen (which in Danish means “Merchants’ Harbor”) I came across a very nice example of emotional re-framing

The guide from the canal tour told us that a long time ago, the “New Harbor” was populated by Sailor Friendly Women … 

You can figure out what that stands for :)

9 July 2014

Behavioral Design: Tricks, Cheats and True Value Interventions. The Wide Array of Behavioral Science Applied in Service Design

For quite some time now I have been involved in bringing behavioral science into practice and the beauty of this (still emerging) field is its diversity. In essence, behavioral science is about understanding how we really think (make judgments and decisions) and what influences what we do. The practical applications of behavioral science are hugely diverse: it is applied in public policy, in marketing and connected fields such as advertising, market research retail design etc., in product and service design, in the financial sector etc. Recently I was invited to take part in a workshop on applying behavioral science in fisheries.

So it’s not exactly farfetched to claim that Behavioral Science can be applied in any field where there is a human component.

There is, however, another dimension of diversity in applications of behavioral science other than the area of application. This is the depth of incorporating behavioral science into an activity.


Not seldom I was asked to present some “cool tricks” of behavioral science that can be used in field X. I’m seriously against seeing the applications of behavioral science as “tricks” and usually respond with the following phrase:

Tricks is what is done in the red lights district in Amsterdam. I am applying (behavioral) science, which is a bit different…”

Although I am against seeing applied behavioral science as a “bag of tricks”, the reality is that many companies and organizations want just a magical silver bullet to solve (almost) all their problems and to brag about how they are “trendy” and “at the cutting edge of best practices”.

The truth is that, quite often, applying patches (read “tricks”) is the only thing that can be done … at least at the moment.

One very good example is that of traffic fines. Thanks to the Behavioral Insights Team (UK) aka. The Nudge Unit, there is some solid knowledge on what can be done to increase the rate of people paying their traffic fines. Simple changes such as replacing “amount owed: …” with “you owe …” leads to an increase in the voluntary compliance (read actually pay the fine).

This approach, however, doesn’t go very deep into solving the real problem which is traffic safety. But more on that later.

When faced with “tricks”, people say:
“That’s cool”


Behavioral science can sometimes be used to create cheats so that a company (organization) gets X Euros extra from the clients’ pockets (bank account).

This is not illegitimate. After all, in a market economy, companies try to maximize what they sell. And for all people who are uncomfortable with this, they should know that once you are in a shop, on a website etc. the organization that owns it will try to do anything possible (and legal) to squeeze as much cash out of you as it can.  

Coming back to behavioral cheats, they refer to applications of behavioral science that are aimed at harnessing the ambiguity people face more often than they are willing to admit and at exploiting some of our cognitive shortcomings.

Here are some general examples of behavioral Cheats.
The use of anchoring effects in retail settings such as during a sales promotion, one client can buy maximum 8 items (when people don’t usually buy more than 2).

Diffusing the scent of freshly cooked food in supermarkets so that clients get hungry and buy more (of everything, not just food items).

The use of scarcity in on-line retailing such as “We have only one room left” (by the way The Dutch advertising standards authority concluded that booking.com is misleading by using this phrase. Details here)

The use of default opt-ins for buying travel insurance along with a flight ticket (yes, it’s about Ryanair)… this practice was banned by the EU Regulation, thankfully.

These behaviorally informed cheats are, for sure, controversial and to some extent subject of public and regulatory scrutiny. However, most of them are no illegal and they are simply part of the arsenal of XXIst century marketing.

When faced with “cheats”, people say:
They tricked me (again)”

True Value Interventions

Cheats and (sometimes) Tricks are quite often controversial and they give applied behavioral science a not so nice image. However, Behavioral Science is a real gold-mine for creating true value, especially when combined with service design.

Mixing behavioral science with service design involves the use of Tricks and occasionally Cheats, but it goes far beyond applying some patches here and there.

When used in developing products and services (may them be public services), behavioral science will lead to the creation of true value. Let’s go back to traffic safety. The use of some behaviorally informed tricks to increase voluntary compliance in paying traffic fines is more than welcomed. Whether we like it or not, fines are part of the game of traffic safety. The application of behavioral science in this area can go further. One possible path is to increase the pain of paying associated with paying fines by making the payment more salient. This, however, is a superficial application of behavioral insights since it doesn’t go beyond the use of “sticks”.

Another path of applying behavioral science in traffic safety is applying a Nudge approach to slowing down drivers in risk areas. One way of doing so is the use of speed cameras which display the speed of a car and showing a happy or a sad face depending on whether the driver is going below or above the speed limit.

Another path of applying behavioral science in traffic safety is creating a behaviorally informed incentive system for young (male) drivers to be prudent. This would consist of returning a part of the (quite high) insurance premium if they don’t have traffic penalties (including accidents) within a certain year. Moreover, this refund can take the form of emotionally valuable products such as a Metallica concert ticket (though I’m not sure than today’s youth appreciate Metallica). At least for this author, a Metallica concert ticket is more valuable than 100 Euros (even if that is the price of the ticket).

Behavioral science can be applied in private sector services as well. Not long ago I was asked by a bank to suggest some behaviorally informed interventions to help the bank’s clients better manage their budget. In The Netherlands most essential expenses (rent / mortgage, health insurance, utilities etc.) are fixed monthly payments done through direct debit on the first day of each month. However, most people receive their salaries around the 25th of the month. My suggestion was to reframe the information on the clients’ account balance between the day of receiving the salary and the day of monthly fixed payments. So instead of seeing on the 26th a balance of 2050 €, the client would see 1150 € + 900 € for your fixed monthly expenses.   

Another suggestion for clients who have more serious issues with managing their budget (and subsequently meeting their loan reimbursements) was to design a “self-control support” mechanism. One feature was for each client to set some categories where they would like to cut down expenses (say liquor) and whenever the person would enter a liquor-shop their phone to display a moral reminder such as “your daughter needs new sport shoes for school”. (Yes, it is technically possible to do this, at least in The Netherlands).

To some (naïve) eyes, the examples above may not seem more than just tricks and cheats, but there is a huge difference. Although reframing the information about one’s bank account balance or using moral reminders to avoid impulse purchases seem trivial and even farfetched, they are neither tricks nor cheats. The behavioral science insights are incorporated at the service/ product design level and they are centered on a problem that needs to be dealt with.

When faced with “True Value Interventions”, people say:
“What a cool feature. I’m glad they did that!

To summarize this already too long post:
When faced with “tricks”, people say: “That’s cool”
When faced with “cheats”, people say: “They tricked me (again)”
When faced with “True Value Interventions”, people say: “What a cool feature. I’m glad they did that!

Of course, there is a good chance that a lot of people will not even notice the Tricks, Cheats and True Value interventions. After all, fish don’t notice the water

3 July 2014

Randomness and the Value of Someone’s Word

I “benefited” from a relatively conservative bringing up and learned that someone’s worth can be determined by how they keep their word. Even now, I believe that my word is the most valuable asset I have and keep it.

I usually keep my word and this implies that I am quite prudent in what I say I can and cannot do…

However, I find that what I have learned and grew up to believe is wrong.

In a world with high levels of unpredictability (randomness) someone’s word is worthless. Even if the person says something in good faith, chances are that what (s)he said will not happen.

As far as I can see, the “way to go” is to say a lot, preferably make some very vague claims and make sure that the costs are passed on to someone else. Just by chance there will be some positive outcomes... 

Lining Up Behavior with Attitudes = Failure - Learnings from TEN – Five years of Applied Behavioral Science in Public Policy Conference

On the 27th of June the Five years of Applied Behavioral Science in Public Policy Conference took place at Roskilde University. Apart from some quite nice Danish weather, there were a superb line-up of speakers and some very juicy talks.

Three pieces of information caught my attention. First, “(young and naïve) Fish don’t Notice the Water”. This metaphor used by Cass Sunstein, illustrates in a very beautiful manner how, most often, we are blind to the context and its influences on what we do, what and how we think and feel.

The second piece of information that stuck with me came from Richard Thaler who supported the use of behavioral science insights and Randomized Control Trials in any endeavor of public policy, even in quite sensitive areas such as safety regulation. His argument was that the costs (risks) are very small compared with the benefits brought by the results of the RCT.

The third learning came from a study ran by the Behavioral Insights Team and presented by Owain Service (Managing Director of The Behavioural Insights Team). It concerned an effort to increase the number of UK citizens to register as organ donors by explicit consent. The BIT used 7 behaviorally informed messages plus the control (existing and non-altered one) and ran what they say is the largest randomized control trial in public policy.

What was particularly interesting for me was that the message “if you support organ donation, please register as an organ donor” did (slightly) worse than the control message – “please register as an organ donor”.

Apparently trying to match behavior with positive attitudes (almost everyone supports organ donation) is doomed to fail, or at least lead to worse results than simply doing nothing.

The message that worked best was “if you would get an organ transplant if you needed it, please register as an organ donor”. This time it is not about attitudes, but about behavior.

Yes, I took a picture with Cass Sunstein, one of my Applied Behavioral Science heroes :)