Home >Home Page >Mind games to stop death on the tracks

Mumbai: A significant amount of Satish Krishnamurthy’s job brief requires him to, like a disaffected teenager, just hang out. He once hung out for three days at a toothbrush counter in a supermarket, watching people buy toothbrushes. For many weeks, he lurked in the corridors of the A to Z Industrial Estate—where Final Mile, the company where Krishnamurthy works, is headquartered—to spy on men spitting up gushers of paan juice.

Preventing fatalities: The sequences of yellow railway sleepers near Mumbai’s Wadala station help pedestrians get a better idea of distances and how fast a train is covering them, which helps them judge its speed. Ashesh Shah/Mint

At Final Mile, Krishnamurthy and Shroff are designated “behaviour architects", and observation is their core research method. Final Mile, a 16-month-old firm, deploys behavioural science to sway consumers. “I’ve been looking at theories of the human brain and at cognitive neurology for the last 10 or 12 years," says Biju Dominic, chief executive of Final Mile. “It allows us to take a larger perspective of marketing through human behaviour."

Dominic helped start Final Mile even as his belief in the power of advertising, his earlier career, was waning. “There’s the old saying," he says, “that 50% of an advertising budget is wasted—you just don’t know which 50% it is." He is a voluble, passionate man, so well read on the subject of behavioural economics that he is prone to beginning sentences with: “There’s a brilliant book by…" He talks with particular reverence about Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 for his work on how people judge risk and make decisions.

Final Mile’s bread-and-butter work happens at retail outlets—the final mile of the purchasing process, so to speak. Too often, Dominic found, marketing to shoppers simply involved slapping part of a mass media ad campaign onto a poster in a shop. He chose instead to search for subtler cues called “nudges", tipping behaviour one way or another.

Final intervention: A triple-panel photo of an alarmed man being run over by a train at Mumbai’s Wadala station. The morbid frieze is placed at the two points where the temptation to cross tracks is most compelling.Ashesh Shah/Mint

In the corridors outside his office, Krishnamurthy noticed that people spit to their right as they climbed stairs, and they spit when they think they’re alone. So he painted crude pictures of men on the right-hand walls, to at least marginally destroy the illusion of solitude. Avoiding the usual stern injunctions against spitting, he also painted a question: “The people who were here earlier didn’t spit. Can you do the same?" “If I can get you to say ‘Yes’ in your mind," he says, “that’s half the battle won."

The experiment at Wadala— done pro bono—is probably Final Mile’s biggest project in terms of the number of people it works on every day. Wadala is one of eight Mumbai stations that collectively account for 60-65% of the track-crossing deaths in the city. Implemented fully just over six weeks ago, it has, as yet, yielded no hard data, although Krishnamurthy says the effects are visible. “We’ll wait to see how effective this is," says an official of the Central Railway, who did not want to be named, “before we decide whether to roll it out to other stations."

Last summer, Krishnamurthy began studying the stationmaster’s register each day, noting the deaths and casualties. He noted the habit of the residents of the Wadala slums of helpfully shouting “gaadi" (or “train") when a locomotive appeared on the horizon. He watched pedestrians and classified them into “long-walkers", who walked along the tracks, and “cross-walkers", who tended to cross often; the latter were more frequent victims of accidents. Surprisingly, there were more deaths in broad daylight, he noted, and more deaths during rush hour.

From all this research, Shroff identified three major decision-making principles in operation on the Wadala tracks. “One is a combination of the Leibowitz Hypothesis and the Looming Effect. Large objects appear to move slower than small objects, and people can’t judge their speed," she says. “Another is the Cocktail Party Effect: The brain isn’t wired to follow two conversations, or do two activities simultaneously. If there are two trains on adjacent tracks, you’ll register one, but not the other." The third is simply a flight response—a tendency to run, which minimizes good judgement.

To each of these principles, Final Mile tailored a specific “intervention". A few hundred metres from the Wadala station, Krishnamurthy points to sequences of railway sleepers painted a bright yellow. “That helps your brain get a better idea of distances and how fast a train is covering them, which helps you judge its speed," he says.

Shortly thereafter, a gaggle of schoolchildren, absorbed in conversation, crosses the tracks, prime material for the Cocktail Party Effect. “So we installed whistle boards just around the bend, telling the motormen to honk," Krishnamurthy says. Even the honk is carefully calibrated: Two short, rapid honks instead of one long one, because that intrudes into a listener’s consciousness much more effectively.

The first few whistle signs that Final Mile put up—regulation boards made of metal— were promptly stolen. “So we had to create a signboard out of something not worth stealing," Krishnamurthy laughs. “We had to do an intervention on the intervention!"

At the station itself, Krishnamurthy points to the final intervention—a three-panel photo of a rather alarmed man being gradually run over by a locomotive. This morbid frieze is positioned exactly at the two points where the temptation to cross is powerful, designed to subtly counter the flight response.

“It’s intended to elicit an appropriate emotional memory," Krishnamurthy says. “We look to faces to figure out situations, so his face is central. We repeated the image, because it catches the eye. And it has to be life-size, not larger than life, because it shouldn’t intrude into the conscious. It should work at an unconscious level."

In behavioural theory, the unconscious is king, but appeals to his highness are never rewarded immediately. “The more an act is unconscious, the greater the time needed to change it," says R. Shankarasubramanyan, a former president of the Indian Society for Applied Behavioural Science. The trick lies in dredging something out of the unconscious, “into the sphere of awareness, and using it in the nick of that moment".

Shankarasubramanyan, who runs his own organizational leadership firm, admits that psychology is hardly an exact science. “All the research is based on statistical data," he says. But many of the principles are standard, and “there has been enough research done to attempt using behavioural science on track crossings—at least to reduce it".

The act of crossing a railway track is, Krishnamurthy insists, largely an unconscious one. “It’s not that they don’t know the dangers—they do," he says, so calling conscious attention to those dangers will work poorly. “Non-conscious actions require non-conscious interventions. We can’t stop people crossing entirely—that won’t happen. But even if we can reduce those deaths by one or two a month, it would be entirely worth it."

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