August 10, 2022

The Danger of Armchair Psychology

Imagine you are driving along the highway and you see an electrical sign that says “79 road deaths this year”. Would it make you less likely to crash your car soon after seeing the sign? Maybe you think it would have no effect?

Neither are true. According to a recent peer-reviewed study which just came out Science, one of the world’s top academic journals, you’d be more likely to crash, not less. Talk about unintended consequences!

The study looked at seven years of data from 880 electric road signs, which showed the number of fatalities so far this year for one week each month as part of a safety campaign. The researchers found that the number of accidents increased by 1.52% within five kilometers of the signs during these safety campaign weeks compared to the other weeks of the month when the signs did not display information on deaths.

This is about the same impact as increasing the speed limit by four miles or decreasing the number of highway troopers by 10%. Scientists calculated that the social costs of these deadly messages amounted to $377 million per year, with 2,600 additional accidents and 16 deaths.

The cause? Distracted driving. According to the study, these “in-your-face” messages grab your attention and compromise your conduct. In other words, the same reason you shouldn’t text and drive.

In support of their hypothesis, the scientists found that the increase in accidents is higher when reported fatalities are higher. So later in the year, as the number of fatalities reported on the panel increases, the percentage of accidents also increases. And that’s not the weather: The effect of posting death messages decreased by 11% between January and February, as the number of posting deaths resets for the year. They also found that the increase in crashes is greatest on more complex road segments, which require greater driver concentration.

Their research also aligns with other studies. One of them proved that increasing people’s anxiety makes them less able to drive. Another showed driver fatality messages in a lab and determined it increased cognitive load, making them distracted drivers.

If the authorities had really paid attention to cognitive science research, they would never have launched these advertisements on the fatal messages. Instead, they relied on armchair psychology and followed their intuitions about what should work, rather than measuring what works. The result was what the researchers call a backfire, which is when an intervention produces an effect opposite to that intended.

Unfortunately, such boomerang effects happen all too often. Consider another safety campaign, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign between 1998 and 2004, which the US Congress funded to the tune of $1 billion. Using professional advertising and public relations firms, the campaign created comprehensive marketing efforts targeting youth ages 9-18 with anti-drug, marijuana-focused messages. Messages were delivered through television, radio, websites, magazines, movie theaters and other venues, and through partnerships with civic, professional and community groups, with the intention that young people see two to three advertisements per week.

A study funded by the National Institutes of Health in 2008 found that, indeed, young people were exposed to two to three advertisements per week. However, overall, greater exposure to campaign advertising led young people to be more likely to use marijuana, not less!

Why? The authors find evidence that young people who saw the advertisements felt that their peers used a lot of marijuana. As a result, young people have become more likely to use marijuana themselves. Indeed, the study found that youth who saw more ads were more likely to believe that other youth were using marijuana, and this belief made it more likely to start using marijuana. Talk about a boomerang effect!

Of course, it’s not just government officials whose campaigns are boomeranging. Consider Apple’s recent very popular “Apple at Work” advertising campaign. Its latest episode, launched in March 2022, is called “Escape from the Office”. It features a group of employees who, when told they had to return to the office when the pandemic ended, chose instead to quit and started an office-less startup using Apple products.

A week before the launch of its advertising campaign touting remote work and lambasting the requirement to return to the office, Apple demanded that its own employees return to the office. That juxtaposition hasn’t worked well with the 7,500 of Apple’s 165,000 employees who are part of an Apple Slack room for remote work.

One employee wrote, “They’re stalking us, aren’t they? and others called the ad “bad taste” and “insulting.” After all, the ad illustrates how Apple is effectively helping corporate employees work from home. Why can’t Apple’s own staff do that, right? This hypocrisy has added to the frustration of Apple employees, with some having already quit. Again, a clear boomerang effect in play.

We know that messaging campaigns – whether on electric signs or through advertisements – can have a substantial effect. This aligns with broader cognitive science research into how people can be affected by nudges, that is, non-coercive efforts to shape the environment to influence the behavior of people. people in predictable ways. For example, a successful nudge campaign to reduce car crashes involved the use of smartphone notifications that helped drivers gauge their performance during each trip. The use of nudges informing drivers of their personal average performance and their personal best performance, measured by accelerometers and gyroscopes, resulted in a reduction in accident frequency of more than a year and a half.

Those with authority – in government or business – frequently attempt to push others based on their mental model of how others should behave. Unfortunately, their mental models are often fundamentally flawed, due to dangerous errors in judgment called cognitive biases. These mental blind spots impact decision-making in all areas of life, including business relationships. Fortunately, recent research has shown effective strategies for overcoming these dangerous misjudgements, such as narrowing our choices to best practices and measuring the impact of our interventions.

Unfortunately, such confidence in the best practices and measures of the interventions of such techniques is too rarely made. Death reporting campaigns have been in place for many years without evaluation. The federal government ran the anti-drug campaign from 1998 to 2004 until the measurement study was finally released in 2008.

Instead, what authorities need to do is consult cognitive and behavioral science experts on nudges before beginning their interventions. And what the experts will tell you is that it is essential to evaluate in small-scale experiments the impact of the proposed nudges. Indeed, although extensive research shows that nudges work, only 62% have a statistically significant impact and up to 15% of desired interventions can backfire.

Still, Texas, along with at least 28 other states, has run mortality messaging campaigns for years, without effectively testing them by behavioral scientists. , the results are often counterproductive. For example, a group of engineers at Virginia Tech did a study of street signs that used humor, popular culture, sports, and other non-traditional themes in an effort to elicit an emotional response. They measured the neuro-cognitive response of participants who read the signs and found that posts “posts with humor and posts that use puns and rhymes elicit significantly higher levels of cognitive activation in the brain.” …an increase in cognitive activation is an indicator of increased attention.The researchers decided that because drivers were more attentive, the signs worked.

Guess what? By this definition, doom signs worked too! They have worked to get drivers to pay attention to the number of fatalities and therefore be distracted from the road. This is an example of how NOT to do a study. The focus of road sign testing should be on the resulting crash count, not whether someone is emotionally aroused and cognitively charged by the sign.

But there is good news. First, it is entirely possible to conduct an effective small-scale study testing an intervention in most cases. States could set up a safety campaign with 100 electrical signs in various settings and assess the three-month impact on traffic accidents after seeing the signs. Policymakers could ask researchers to track data as they run ads for a few months in various nationally representative markets for a few months and assess their effectiveness. More generally, any leader should avoid relying on armchair psychology and test your intuition before deploying internal and external initiatives. Our feelings about how others may react often lead us astray due to our mental blind spotsforcing leaders to be humble and diminish their trust in their instinctual drives.


Written by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky.
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