Discovering when to rob a bank

When to rob a bank’ is, in fact, the latest book from the Freakonomics co-authors and the reason Stephen Dubner recently visited London.  Sourced from a decade of blog articles it provides numerous (often provocative) observations on decisions that appear to be wrong – at least from the perspective of rational economics.

These include the way we overlook vegan-ism as a weapon against climate change – which “is like ignoring fast food in the fight against obesity”.  (A global vegan diet would reduce dietary omissions by 87%).  Or the reticence of US authorities to conduct a vigorous ‘war’ on tax cheats despite the amount owed being comparable to the federal deficit.

This dossier of questionable actions reminds us that our behaviour is often not rational, often not in our best collective interests and above all difficult to change.  Furthermore our actions are shaped by incentives – sometimes in unexpected ways – such as teachers adjusting exam scores of their failing students to meet targets.

In his talk, Stephen stressed the difficulty of changing behaviour and the even bigger challenge of changing that behaviour in the way we want.  Using the example of tackling hand hygiene he highlighted 3 barriers to positive behaviour change:

1. Determining the real problem. 

There is almost always a difference between claimed behaviour and that ‘revealed’ by objective data on actual behaviour.  In the case of hand hygiene doctors from a hospital were claiming 73% compliance, compared to 9% observed by their nurses. Doctors were at the centre of the problem, it was a big one and it wasn’t being acknowledged.

2. Persuasive argument is often not potent

Communicating good reasons will probably be insufficient to deliver a positive change. In this example, well educated and trained doctors did not respond to reminders of the need and importance of hand hygiene. (Indeed the task force, issuing the communication were found to exhibit the same lack of hand hygiene!)

3.  Our responsive to incentives is unpredictable

Rewards for the right behaviour were popular but did not increase the frequency of hand washing overall. It appeared that doctors adapted their behaviour when rewards were likely, but may have become less inclined when rewards were not anticipated.  Following trial and error, the surprisingly simple introduction of a screen saver showing bacteria on a doctor’s hand proved most effective.

For those trying to influence behaviour change on the part of customers, colleagues or the general public there are clearly some implications.

We certainly need to be wary of rushing to a single solution – aware that incentives and actions can have unpredicted consequences and potentially make matters worse.

Above all, however, is the need to invest in robust data to ‘reveal’ actual behaviour. Initially this will ensure the ‘change challenge’ is carefully defined and sized. Later on, new data can provide vital learning on alternative incentives.

To return, tenuously, to the title of his talk: “when to rob a bank?”  Stephen’s data that bank robbery offers an extremely poor pay-back makes the rational answer “never.”  But with actions heavily influenced by the choices, circumstances and incentives in front of us it will continue to be the wrong answer for some.

Changing behaviour is very challenging.

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