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Algos, attribution, and allowances

One of our psychological tendencies (neé biases) is the fundamental attribution error. Also known as: that driver didn’t signal. We have the disposition to note that when others misstep it is their fault, but when we error it’s due to the very specific, unique, unavoidable nuance of the situation.

Conditions matter and we tend to underrate them.

Hannah Fry spoke with Shane Parrish about the role of algorithms in our lives. Though algorithms are impartial in their functionality, they are not in their design. The training set (or set of experiences by the programmer) affects the outcome. Sometimes this means we get the wrong proxies because we use what’s easy to discover, digest, or divide.

“You can’t just build an algorithm, put in on the shelf and decide whether it’s good or bad in isolation. You have to think about how the algorithm actually integrates with the world you’re embedding it in.” Hannah Fry

Conditions matter. For a natural experiment, researchers looked at county-level obesity rates and military transfers. Personnel assigned to counties with higher obesity rates were more likely to be obese. The longer they were assigned in a place, the more they trended toward the average weight.

The researchers supposed that part-of-the-reason was because of the built and natural environment. The number of gyms and parks, the access to healthy food, and the walkability of a region were all associated with a place being more or less healthy. It’s not so much ‘you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with‘ but ‘you are the average of the five places you spend the most time

Place and space make some things easier. It’s not impossible to in Ohio winters, but do watch the ice.

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Ohio, January 2018

The latest pay-what-you-want pdf is now online and covers a handful of ideas from Tyler Cowen. Get it here

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Hand Washing Update

bathroom bottle clean container
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We looked at hand washing design research because conditions matter. People are influenced by their environment, often more than they realize. In that first post we highlighted to:

  • Turn off the water, to feel less rushed.
  • Make bosses (attending physicians) clean their hands.
  • Use incentives to reward (or penalize).
  • Put the hand-cleaning area adjacent to the need-hands-clean area.
  • Create a social expectation.

That research maps well to the EAST framework. To change behavior make things Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely.

There are two updates since then.

First, The Behavioral Insights team researched which infographics communicated the best. Comparing seven ‘how to’ posters from around the world on 2,500 UK adults they found that “bright infographics with the step-by-step procedure prominently displayed without too much accompanying text” worked best to communicate good hand washing steps.

However, this was a ‘what I say’ question on a ‘what I do topic.’ Instead of hand washing it could have been a personal savings infographic about spending too much on a car. Sure, people will confirm they know the information but what would they do? It’s an encouraging start but more needs done.

Second, Google Search Trends for ‘hand wash’ negatively correlates with coronavirus cases. A few years ago, Google Trends predicted the flu rates ahead of the CDC but in following years erred enormously. Researchers suggested it was because people aren’t great at diagnosing the flu. How many times have you gone to WebMD AND had the thing. This bodes well for  the hand washing research, which stepped over that obstacle of unfamiliarity.

This focus on hand washing is timely but it’s also generalizable. It’s any verb. Investing. Driving. Loving. Parenting. All of these things are affected by the conditions they exist in.

Thank you for reading and supporting.

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Hand Washing Design

Update, April 25, 2020: The Behavioral Insights team researched which infographics communicated the best

John Gruber posted at Daring Fireball that when he washes his hands, he turns the water off and feels less rushed and more likely to wash for the CDC suggested twenty seconds. “It’s very clear to me after just two days that doing so makes it far more natural to spend more time actually sudsing your hands up. When you leave the water running, it subconsciously puts you in a bit of a rush, because you know you’re wasting water.” 

Rationally whether the water runs or not shouldn’t matter. The most important thing (mid-March 2020) is to kill the harmful viruses and bacteria people pick up during their (limited) social exposures. Though the chances are small, the consequences are the largest. However we aren’t rational and we don’t always wash our hands. 

At one teaching hospital, the best predictor of hand-washing was attending physicians. If they washed, the medical students followed. Multiple meta-analysis (meta-meta-analysis?) suggest the best option might be “multifaceted” nudges, educational materials, and bedside hand sanitizers. Another showed that performance reviews (personal wealth) and access to hand sanitizer (ease) had the strongest though-not-super-duper-strong effects. Incentives (personal health) also kept hand-washing levels high after the 2003 SARS outbreak.

What’s so interesting is that even though one path is clearly better, people need help following it. Hygiene is like diet or investments

This randomized control trial in India found a way to increase hand-washing 30X, even twelve months after the intervention. 

A study of 802 Kenyan households offers the model that makes the most sense to me for why people do anything. Those, “significant predictors of observed hand-washing behaviour: having the habit of hand-washing at particular junctures during the day, the motivated need for personal or household cleanliness, and a lack of cognitive concern about the cost of soap use.” 

Like finches, people are influenced by their environment. If we want to encourage actions like hand washing, social distancing, and factfullness we should design conditions that make those thing easy.