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Our three offerings this month range from practical to persuasion to big data. I can personally testify to the validity of the first report, on how real-time information on bus arrivals impacts users. I was a regular bus rider when I lived in Washington, DC, and well remember when the real time system was installed. It made using the bus feel much more reliable (even though it really wasn’t!). I don’t know if more people began using the bus, but the whole experience was greatly improved.
In the next piece, renowned psychologist Robert Cialdini says it is social evidence that influences behavior change: “If this is what people around you have decided is a good choice, it’s a great shortcut for you to determine what’s a good choice.” This points to the power of culture, which, after all, is what everyone around us is doing, our combined habits, as Peter Senge has noted. As the habits of those around us change, i.e., as their culture changes, we key off that: “If ‘my people’ are buying Subarus this year, maybe that’s the car I should buy.” If this is so, how can we accelerate the cultural shifts now beginning, and ramp up their pace from linear to exponential?
The third piece suggests how this acceleration might be encouraged. MIT computational social scientist Alex Pentland’s findings using “big data” confirm the teachings of the Buddha and all the great wisdom teachers, namely that we are wired to seek the well-being of others and to deepen our ties to them. This flies in the face of the “ME” culture Madison Avenue would have us believe is our real driver. It suggests promising ways that may accelerate a shift toward enhanced collective well-being.
Thank you for being part of our community and our work together. While each of us may only be able to make a small difference (though many of you make a very large difference), remember the wise words of Garrison neighbor Pete Seeger: “Be wary of great leaders. Hope that there are many small leaders.”
John K. McIlwain
Director, Climate, Mind, and Behavior
Letting people know when their bus will arrive – before they are standing at the stop – provides a boost in rider satisfaction, and may encourage more public transport use. Smartphone apps and real-time internet, text or voicemail updates that track bus routes allow riders to plan ahead and avoid long waiting periods at the bus stop. The technology that enables this kind of direct-to-rider data sharing is relatively inexpensive and has caught on widely, although not uniformly, throughout the country. Researchers at Washington University developed one such popular tool, OneBusAway. It is available in Atlanta, New York, Tampa and Puget Sound. This university-transit system collaboration has yielded some research on best implementation practices that is valuable for regional transportation planners working with application developers. For instance, most riders accept about a five-minute inaccuracy window for the data; inaccuracies beyond this result in less user satisfaction. By working closely with developers, transit agencies can find, relay and help solve prediction errors more quickly, leading to more accuracy, and ultimately more public transit users.
“Think more like Madison Avenue!” – that’s an admonition from a recent Climate, Mind and Behavior Symposium participant that many agreed with. Crafting and delivering specific behavior and climate change messages would be much easier with the help of professional advertising agencies, but few program budgets can afford one. There is, however, a wealth of available social psychology literature on persuasion. Renowned psychologist Robert Cialdini wrote the book on harnessing social norms to influence behavior. He distills his insights into six “weapons of influence:” Reciprocity, Commitment, Social Proof, Authority, Liking and Scarcity. Cialdini’s research is behind the success of energy efficiency darling Opower and the well-known hotel ‘towel studies.’ He argues that it is not social pressure so much as social evidence that influences behavior change: “If this is what people around you have decided is a good choice, it’s a great shortcut for you to determine what’s a good choice.” Cialdini recently gave a briefing to Congress, organized by the National Research Council. His informative presentation is linked below.
A computational social scientist from MIT, Alex Pentland, suggests that since big data allows researchers to gather massive amounts of seemingly objective information on human behavior, it is positioned to give the social sciences a new level of precision and to eventually efface the distinction between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences. He believes that by analyzing trends in large data sets, the social sciences’ once-tricky problem of “subjectivity” all but disappears as the numbers reveal the “social physics” underlying our choices. Through a series of “groundbreaking experiments” that use cutting-edge methods to follow the trail of “digital breadcrumbs” to re-create social networks, Pentland finds that “humans respond much more powerfully to social incentives that involve rewarding others and strengthening the ties that bind than incentives that involve only their own economic self-interest.” The finding supports what many other social and behavioral science research methods have already picked up. While the results may not be novel, the technique certainly demands attention, not least of all for the privacy implications it raises.
Climate, Mind and Behavior Leadership Council:
Dina Biscotti, UC Davis
Uwe Brandes, Urban Land Institute
Marilyn Cornelius, Stanford University
Jeff Domanski, Princeton University
Becky Ford, University of Otago, New Zealand
Ruth Greenspan-Bell, Woodrow Wilson Intl Center for Scholars
Lauren Kubiak, Natural Resources Defense Council
Skip Laitner, ACEEE
Nils Moe, Urban Sustainability Directors Network
Phil Payne, Gingko Residential
Roger Platt, USGBC
Jonathan Rose, Garrison Institute Board Member
Kurt Roth, Fraunhofer Institute
Jonathan Rowson, RSA
Rachael Shwom, Rutgers University
Jennifer Tabanico, Action Research
Jason Twill, Lend Lease (Australia)