Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Don't Make Decisions When You're Hungry

Don't Make Decisions When You're Hungry

I was recently listening to a freakonomics podcast called 'How to Make a Bad Decision', that suggested decisions made be judges in asylum courts aren't as objective as we might hope. The podcast focusses on a study by Chen, Moskowitz, and Shue (2016), which argues that cognitive biases such as 'the law of small numbers' and the 'gambler's fallacy' can affect judges' decisions on whether to approve or deny asylum to a petitioner by as much as a 10% difference. For those seeking asylum, this is a pretty big number when the decision made could greatly affect, and even possibly save theirs and their family's lives. It's therefore important to understand these cognitive biases and seek to prevent their effect where possible.

The law of small numbers is the tendency for us to overestimate the representativeness of samples to the wider population. For example, consider a scenario in which six babies have recently been born in hospital. When asked which sequence of gender is more likely out of; (a) GGGGGG and; (b) BGBGBG, most people intuitively answer (b), even though each individual event has no relation to the others and every time a baby is born the chance of it being a boy or girl is 50:50 (Kahneman, 2011). This demonstrates how intuitive the law of small numbers is as we assume that our sample of 6 will closely resemble the general population which does balance out as being around 50:50 girls and boys due to the size of the population. In contrast, our sample is very small and therefore it is just as likely for (a) to occur as it is (b), but we don't intuitively think this.

This closely links with the gambler's fallacy, which is our misunderstanding of the nature of randomness and our intuitive tendency to assign patterns to random processes. This cognitive bias makes us prefer (b) as it has some regularity to it, whereas (a) seems unlikely due to our lack of understanding of random processes and the fact that each individual event is not casually related to the others. Anyway, enough of the technical terms, back to the effect this has on parole judges and consequently, asylum seekers.

In Chen et al's study, the researchers argue that the gambler's fallacy causes judges to be more likely to deny asylum by up to 5%. This number is based on how many cases the judge had already approved or denied earlier that day. If a judge approved a case the previous day, they are almost 1% more likely the deny the current case they're looking at the day after. If the previous case was approved on the same day, this number increases to 3%. If three cases are considered on the same day, with the previous two both approved, the judge becomes 5% less likely to approve the third case. This effect is also shown in reverse when a judge denies the previous two cases, they are then 5% more likely to approve the next. This results in a 10% difference between deciding to approve or deny a case, simply based on the approval rate of cases earlier in the day. This is a huge number for a decision affecting something as important as whether or not you will be allowed to remain in the country of your choice.

Another study mentioned in the podcast, carried out by Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso (2011), suggests that the time since your last meal break also leads to a cognitive bias in decision-making. This is related to Pavlovian classical conditioning, which states that we come to associate positive feelings with the stimulus present at the time after repeated co-occurrences. For example, Pavlov managed to train dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell after repeatedly presenting them with food when the bell sounded, causing them to associate the presentation of food (and the associated response of salivating) with the sound of a bell. Danzinger et al in their study found a similar effect with parole judges. This graph shows the percentage of cases approved by judges across the day, with the dotted line indicating a meal break:
As you can see, at the start of the day and immediately after a meal break there was a 65% chance that the judges would approve a case. This gradually declined until it hit 0% just before a meal break, and then shot up to around 65% again straight after the break. This is arguably because the judges experience a good feeling when they have a break and eat some food which they then associate with whatever case they then come to look at, making them more likely to approve the cases close to their meal breaks. This is another cognitive bias that seems to have a great effect on the likelihood of asylum seekers having their case approved.

Whilst parole judges are trained to consider the legal merits of cases presented to them, these cognitive biases are largely unknown and not included as part of their training. I think it's important that courts become more aware of the existence and effects of these in order to attempt to counteract them in judges decisions. In the meantime, if you're seeking asylum I suggest you somehow aim to get a hearing first thing in the morning before the judge has looked at any other cases, or immediately after they've had a meal break. Moskowitz suggests that perhaps a good lawyer would be able to lobby for this. Failing this, perhaps the best option left would be to inconspicuously give the judge a snack so that they come to associate the good feeling they receive from food with your asylum case. Make sure this snack isn't Twiglets though, because Twiglets taste gross and definitely won't leave a good taste in the judge's mouth!

  Cialdini, R. (2009) Influence: Science and Practice. 5th edn. Harlow: Pearson Education (US).

  Chen, D. L., Moskowitz, T. J. and Shue, K. (2016) 'Decision-Making Under the Gambler's Fallacy:

  Evidence from Asylum Judges, Loan Officers, and Baseball Umpires', SSRN Electronic Journal.

  Danziger, S., Levav, J. and Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011) 'Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions', Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 108(17), pp. 6889-6892.

  Dubner, S. J. (2016) How to Make a Bad Decision. Freakonomics Radio.

  Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin Press/Classics.

By Gemma Crook

Effective vs Ethical

If you want to listen to a fascinating discussion about the research done at Facebook I suggest you check out the podcast linked below from the folks at Radiolab. They investigate the ethical concerns experiments done by Facebook pose: to what extent is it okay to test the effects of content found on your feed has on your mood? How would you feel about this, knowing that you might feel kind of blue lately due to hidden tinkerers on the other side of the globe? What if the same guys are trying to help you come to terms with your friends after some stupid argument? Mending relationships with crazy exes? The list goes on...

On one hand, the benefits behavioural science can reap from being able to run studies with tens of thousands of subjects are undoubtedly huge. On the other hand, should private companies be able to do so? If yes, should the subjects be warned in advance? If no, how can we ensure they don't do it? Perhaps by making the algorithms they use to tailor the content of your feeds open-source. But which company would agree to this anyways, when they effectively have a monopoly on text-based social media (see this slightly outdated infographic by Forbes: Facebook drives 20 times the traffic Twitter does)?

The Trust Engineers (Podcast by Radiolab)

The Leading Cause of Violent Crime?

What happens when you want to account for a global, decades-long, society-wide trend of change of behaviour, but against your best efforts you fail to find an explanation? Well, eventually you will give up and look for causes where you'd least expect to find them. And once you find causes, you will have two options: amend your theory of behaviour change, or abandon it.

Something along these lines happened in the 90's USA, when researchers tried to explain the plunge in violent crime rates compared to previous decades. A paper published in 2000 found that if a 23 year delay is introduced, there is as astounding correlation between lead emissions from automobiles and the variation in violent crime rates in the USA. The paper reports that "toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the 40's and 50's were more likely to become violent criminals in the 60's and 70's": tetraethyl lead levels in the bloodstream explains crime rates better than any other measure of societal change.

Correlaton of lead levels and violent crime - from Nevin, 2007

As the article linked below puts it, "more prisons might help control crime, more cops might help, and better policing might help too (...) but the evidence is thin for all these as the main cause". And it is not just New York City where crime has dropped a shocking 75% from peak levels in early 1990's. Researcher Rick Nevin has found that lead and crime data from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand and (West) Germany show similar correlations too. He also notes that no other theory can accommodate the data as well as the lead-hypothesis. Exposure to lead in childhood is linked to loss of grey matter and a degradation of the myelin sheath of neurons, leading to a drop in overall IQ besides adverse effects on emotional and impulse control.

So, as a take-away message: social science and theories of behaviour change can benefit from some thinking-outside-the-box. In this case the box turned out to be the usual framework of cognitive psychology, with an explanation to be found in the realm of the biochemistry of the brain.

For more information see the article and paper below:

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Let’s get rid of terrorists once and for all

                        “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible”  
                                                                                                                                   - Aristotle

Fear of terrorism and in particular, radical Islamic terrorism, has become a part of our current day and age. Media coverage of regular occurring attacks all over the world create the image that we live in a dangerous world and that we should bear in mind the substantial threat of ourselves or someone we know being involved in such a catastrophe.
Data from third annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears (2016) showed that terrorist attacks ranked second on the list of top fears (41% being afraid or very afraid), right after being afraid of corrupt government officials. The recent uptick in home grown attacks like the Pulse nightclub massacre and San Bernardino seem to have increased some Americans mistrust of Muslims (1). Furthermore, when Americans are asked about how concerned they are about foreign or foreign inspired terrorists currently living in the US, the majority of the respondents answered they are very concerned (2). According to the 2011 Background report of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 3497 people have been killed by terrorist attacks in the US during a 40-year period ranging from 1970 to 2010 (3), which gives us a yearly average of almost 90 deaths per year due to terrorist attacks. When we compare these numbers to mortality rates due to causes such as cyclist incidents, dog involved incidents and death from being struck by lightning (2013), Americans were respectively about 767, 29 and 19 times more likely to be killed by these incidents than by terrorists. (4)

Fear is an emotion and has therefore no strings with rational statistics and demographics. If, for instance, we look at the prevalence of aviophobia (fear of flying), we see that 12,5% of U.S. adults suffers from (at least) a significant fear of flying (5). Even though it being the safest way of transport. When analysing this phobia, the main reason for the angst is the fear of crashing, which will most likely result in death (fear of hijacking or terrorist also being one of the reasons for aviophobia) (6). Another proposed reason for this fear is the incomprehension of the mechanics of an airplane, and the misinterpretation of turbulence as being on the verge of crashing. This fear of death and inability to fully grasp aviation physics is something I return to at the end of this blog.

After 9/11 (which also happened to lead to an increase in the prevalence of aviophobia) and the start of the ‘War on Terror’ the fear of Islamic terrorism rose and the media coverage concerning radical Islamic extremists changed in the Western world. However, the role of the media in branding terrorism has raised some curiosity and has set the stage for a continuous debate. For example, when the Norwegian Anders Breivik killed 69 people (primarily youngsters) during a left wing summer camp on the island of Utøya, many newspapers and news networks didn’t describe him as a terrorist, or raised questions about him being one (7). The Norwegian court did convict him of terrorism together with mass murder and causing a fatal explosion.  

In the US, the perpetrator of the Charleston church shooting in South Carolina, Dylann Roof, was charged by the US Federal court with Hate Crime and Obstruction of Exercise of Religion both resulting in death (and an attempt to kill). Roof allegedly told a few friends that he intended the murder of the parishioners, attendees of historically black Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, to ‘start a race war’, while his online ‘manifesto’, verified by the FBI, confirmed his motivations to intimidate and assassinate. FBI Director James Comey told reporters at a press conference he didn’t see the murders “as a political act,” a requirement necessary for terrorism (8). Roof’s crime does seem to fit the federal description of domestic terrorism, which the FBI 
defines as:
“activities … [that] involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law … appear intended to
(i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population,
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”

In England, we’ve recently witnessed the case of Thomas Mair brutally murdering MP Jo Cox, which again raised the debate concerning calling him a terrorist or not. The Oxford Dictionaries definition of a terrorist is: “A person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” He made clear that this was not solely an attack on Cox as an individual: “This is for Britain,” he said, and “Keep Britain independent”. His first court appearance, where he gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”, confirmed his political motives. On the 23rd of November the man was charged with murder, a common-law offence, rather than with an offence under counter-terrorism legislation. The problem, however, isn't that we're too slow when it comes to calling men like Mair or Roof a terrorist. It's that we're often too quick to call everyone else a terrorist.

 Mental state is another domain predominantly preserved for white mass murdering non-terrorist lone wolfs. Whilst the Orlando shooter who brutally killed forty-nine people and injured another fifty-three in a LBGT affiliated nightclub, was quickly depicted as a terrorist, because he was from Middle Eastern (Afghani) descent, i
t wasn’t until the midst of the massacre that Omar Mateen dialled 911 and pledged allegiance to ISIS. They had claimed him as one of their own, although there is no evidence yet of any prior connection. An FBI investigation in 2014 found no substantial link. What is becoming clear, from his ex-wife, and from past and present co-workers, is that he had a history of violence, homophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and he was accused of mental instability.
Furthermore I personally dare to hypothesize that any (mass) murder, even though being accountable, has one or more mental health issues.

Who cares how you name it?
Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley has emphasized that this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person”, whilst violence by Muslim (or Afro-American) people is systematic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion. Caucasians will be called sick and mentally ill, like when former FBI special agent Jonathan Gilliam appeared on CNN, saying that Roof probably “has some mental issues” and didn’t know he had done anything wrong. Therefore humanizing him for his “illness”, which is in sheer contrast with the rapid characterisation of their Muslim counterparts and murdering colleagues. Sure, Roof most likely has a mental illness, but that doesn’t mean he can’t also be a racist and a terrorist. The news-framing around this tragedy shows how criminals are described depending on their background, even when they commit similar atrocities as others. When Muslims commit crimes or terrorism, we tend to describe the criminals in general terms speaking of the “inherent” negative qualities of their racial or religious group. This subconsciously implies that the crime is linked to Islam. Also, if the argument of sympathy doesn’t suffice, primarily calling Muslims terrorists when committing such criminal acts strengthens the feeling of exclusion of Muslims in Western countries. For all we know, further segregation of instable individuals from their national society isn’t helping deradicalisation, to say the least.

We’re better than this
The predominant preservation of the terrorism brand for Muslims solidifies the negative evaluation of this outgroup. In my opinion, you could try to understand the rise of Islamophobia by means of the Theory of Planned Behaviour.
Theory of planned behaviour states that attitude, subjective norms and perceived behavioural control are the three main components for our intention to change our behaviour. Many white non-Muslims in Europe and the US who have no or rare interaction with Muslims tend to have a somewhat negative attitude towards Muslims (9), partly due to continuous associations with terrorism. Furthermore, as being culturally different, some Muslims tend to have somewhat different norms when it comes to, for instance, clothing and sexuality, which is sometimes associated with being ‘less free’. When politicians postulate sentences as ‘these terrorists committed an attack on our freedom’, it tends to consolidate this negative Western freedom and democracy hating association for the average benevolent Muslim.
By implicitly limiting the definition of terrorism to mean violence perpetrated by Muslims we’re creating a false impression that all terrorist are Muslim. And once people believe that all terrorists are Muslim, it’s not hard to make a leap to believe that all Muslims are terrorists. We’ve probably all witnessed US President Elect Trumps’ call for a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US ‘until they know what the heck is going on’, which fits this reversed and immensely extrapolated causation.

Earlier on I discussed the fear of death and misunderstanding of aviation physics in its relation to aviophobia. I strongly believe the fear of death contributes to the exaggerated fear of being a victim of a terrorist attack. Together with the misconception of the Islamic religion and ongoing associations between Muslims and terrorism, it’s not very surprising to see a steadily growing trend of fear and aversion against Islam in the West. Richard Orange states in his column in the Telegraph that: “To call Breivik "a terrorist" is to give him exactly what he wants. The most appropriate response to this psychopathic narcissist is ridicule. Let’s incorporate this for all psychopaths”. I agree with his statement. Let’s not give these psychopaths what they want by explicating that they do terrorise us. Let’s call them ridiculous, pathetic, loners. Or better yet, let’s not give them the attention they crave for so much. Let us call for a complete shutdown of the use of the word terrorist, this off course, until we know what is going on. This evidently will not make any bullet or any bomb less fatal, but at least, we as a civilised society will signify that we will not be authorized by criminals. If the monsters strike with fear, we react with courage. For courage, is the first of human virtues.

Chaouki Touzani


Mortality in the United States, 2013 Kenneth D. Kochanek, M.A.; Sherry L. Murphy, B.S.; Jiaquan Xu, M.D.; Elizabeth Arias, Ph.D.

Kessler RC, Berglund PA, Demler O, Jin R, Walters EE. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry. 2005 Jun;62(6):593-602.

"Fear of Flying Media Kit" (Press release). Captain S. L. Chance. 2006. Retrieved 2007-04-29.

Metzl, J. M., & MacLeish, K. T. (2015). Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms. 
American Journal of Public Health, 105(2), 240–249.

It's not all blue or red!

It's not all blue or red!

Ever wondered why your Facebook feed appears so disproportionally outraged, shocked and surprised after election results? For example, following the Brexit vote or the 2016 American Presidential election? I know I have.

It has come out in the news recently that Facebook algorithms are programmed to bring you a personalised and tailored feed, according to what they think your opinions are. This has led the organisation to be widely criticised on its coverage of political news.

This website set up by the Wall Street Journal could be the answer. It illustrates the two extreme ways the 2016 US Presidential campaign was reported: the red, conservative side against the blue, liberal side.

Indeed, this eye-opening website highlights the presence of a polarised in and out-group. Depending which side your Facebook feed represented, you were probably only shown one-side of the story. I know I was. 

What are the consequences of such biased reporting and why?

Firstly, the theory of social proofing which argues people assume what is the correct behaviour by looking amongst their in-group, seems relevant in this context. A study by Weaver, Schwartz and Miller (2007) found that people inferred an opinion was most prevalent if it was familiar to them, even after being repeated to them just 3 times by the same source. In the context of Facebook news reporting, when social media users are repeatedly exposed to the same opinion they are likely to overestimate the prevalence of this opinion in the general population. An alarming consequence of this is that Facebook users from either side might feel less inclined to go out and vote as their preferred candidate appears well supported.

Furthermore, the issue raised by the Wall Street Journal is worrying according to Janis’ (1972) Groupthink theory. The latter is the idea that while not all group members actually agree, a strong desire for homogeneity and harmony leads the group to adopt irrational opinions. Indeed, the natural will to minimise conflict leads to the absence of critical thinking. Janis (1972) highlights that some observable consequences of groupthink are uniformity pressures, self-censorship and close-mindedness. In the context of political campaigns, debate is essential. However, if Facebook narrows down the groups to red and blue, social media users are forced to adhere to one side without the opportunity to navigate both sides of the argument and take their stance. 

The long-term effects of such biased reporting are severe. Indeed, this emphasis on in-groups and out-groups leaves little room for debate, compromise and tolerance and largely increases opinion polarisation.

If you were to take one thing away from this post it should be: it's not all black or white. Or should I say blue or red.  

Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes.

Weaver, Schwartz and Miller (2007) Inferring the popularity of an opinion from it's familiarity: a repetitive voice can sound like a chorus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(5), 821-833.