Wednesday, July 25, 2012

blackadder and behavioural economics

I recall an anecdote from a conversation several years ago with representatives of the late, and much lamented, COI - the UK government's policy objectives and public services marketing body which sadly closed it's doors for the final time in the early part of 2012.

The agency I worked for at the time were assisting the UK Department of Health on a number of initiatives including some of the anti smoking activity.

The COI were early champions of much of the thinking that we now broadly associate with behavioural economics and were therefore right on the ball with recognising that the dominant paradigm in communications theory that placed disproportionate importance on the notion that independent thinking and rational decision making were the principle influence on the choices we make was not 100% correct.

While those factors are often significant in short-term decision making - I choose brand x baked beans because they are on special offer - they do not explain longer term behaviours, much of which are far more affected by how we see others behave, habits we've formed and our general inability to compute things like financial costs and benefits.

Anyway, research material that COI provided us to inform the work we were doing with DoH indicated that the frightening messaging on cigarette packets intended to make people think about stopping smoking (smoke these and you will die etc) was in fact having a somewhat opposite effect.

The COI psychologists were becoming concerned that the results indicated that these warnings were actually more of an encouragement to smoke because the emotional response was more akin to an 'excitement' that one would attribute to activities such as bungee jumping or other extreme sports.

Essentially extrinsic factors overpowering intrinsic motivations.

I did a short talk last night to the members of the Institute of Analytics professionals and used the following example from Blackadder to add a bit of flavour to my argument that the data industry can best complement the creative industry by concentrating effort on finding the right information and helping us all continue to qualify and quantify at least some of the following matters, because it's all there in the data and patterns.

- How other people's behaviour affects our own
- How and why habits are formed
- Intrinsic motivations (mastery, autonomy, purpose)
- Why we are bad at simple sums

Captain Blackadder:
You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war two great super-armies developed. Us, the Russians and the French on one side, Germany and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea being that each army would act as the other's deterrent. That way, there could never be a war.

Private Baldrick:
Except, this is sort of a war, isn't it?

Captain Blackadder:
That's right. There was one tiny flaw in the plan.

Private Baldrick:
Oh,what was that?

Captain Blackadder:
It was bollocks.

I used Professor Kahneman's 'bat and ball' experiment on the crowd.

Remember this was 150 or so analytics professionals, data geeks and mathematics heads.

A bat and ball costs one dollar and ten cents to buy.
The bat costs a dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

Just about everyone nodded when I asked if ten cents came to mind.

So the idea that independent thinking and rational decision making are the principle influence on the choices we make has one tiny teeny flaw.

It is complete bollocks.

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