Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Opinion | Lessons in behavioural change from railway track trespassers

Interventions that affect subconscious processes of the brain are more effective than messages aimed at the conscious mind

According to available reports, Mumbai witnessed fewer than 200 murders in 2018. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 1,205 people committed suicide in Mumbai city in 2016. However, the biggest cause of unnatural deaths in the city is accidents while crossing railway tracks. On an average, 10 people die every day in Mumbai in these “trespassing" accidents.

A few years back, Indian Railways asked us to help mitigate the trespassing problem in Mumbai. After six months of intense study, the team designed three behavioural science-based solutions to influence the behaviour of trespassers. These were implemented on a 900-metre stretch near Wadala station. This length had witnessed 40 trespassing-related deaths the previous year. The behavioural science solutions led to a 75% reduction in such accidents. Recently, on the request of the Union minister for railways, these behavioural solutions were implemented across a 5km stretch in Mumbai. There was an accident reduction of up to 81% in places where the interventions were introduced, and a 44% fall in accidents across the whole stretch. This project holds several lessons for those involved in solving many other significant problems in business and society.

Most problems in our society and the world of business look very simple on the surface. So, we tend to take them lightly. Only when we go deeper do we realize that most of these problems are complex. Hundreds of thousands of people cross railway tracks in Mumbai every day. In many places, people have no option but to cross these tracks as they go about their daily activities, like going to school or buying vegetables. Or they have to walk an extra kilometre or two for the closest foot overbridge. These bridges are built where people trespass in large numbers. But they have not been able to solve the problem of trespassing accidents.

In places where people trespass in large numbers, fellow trespassers tend to shout warnings to those who are at risk. Accidents mostly occur in places where trespassing happens occasionally and there is no one to warn a lone trespasser of his or her mistake. There is no doubt that it does not make economic sense to build foot overbridges in places where only a few people trespass. Nor has any correlation been found between building more pedestrian overpasses and a reduction in trespassing accidents.

There were further complexities that one encountered while solving the trespassing problem. Accident data showed that the vast majority of mishaps were happening in broad daylight and in places where the visibility of oncoming trains was very good. One was obviously intrigued by why someone should get hit by an oncoming train one can clearly see. Brain studies provided us some interesting insights into the problem.

Evolutionarily, the human brain is good at judging the speed of small objects, like rabbits and deer. Evolutionarily, the human brain has not seen large objects like elephants and giraffes move fast. Studies by Prof. H.W. Leibowitz have shown that the human brain underestimates the speed of a large object like a train by 40%. The other problem with the human brain is called the Cocktail Party Effect. Due to this phenomenon, the conscious part of the brain cannot focus on two things at the same time. So, if one is focused on a train on one track, one’s brain is not able to register even the loudest horn of a train on another track.

Another facet of the human brain also contributes to accidents: whenever a human being repeats a dangerous activity, the sense of risk he or she attaches to that activity diminishes. When people trespass for the first time, they are very cautious because their risk estimation is high. But when they repeat the behaviour for several years, that feeling of risk might even disappear entirely.

Traditional solutions that focus on generating awareness about the dangers of trespassing are a waste of time and money. There are no trespassers who believe that they can survive a train hit. “Objects in the mirror are closer than what they appear"-type of communication too will not help overcome deficiencies of the human brain. Putting up signboards across Mumbai that “Trains are faster than you think" will not solve the problem of trespassing in the city.

But it was found that when blocks of sleepers were painted in yellow closer to the trespassing zones, they acted as a reference point to help the human brain better judge the speed of oncoming trains. Such interventions that influence the non-conscious processes of the human brain are far more effective than straight communication aimed at the conscious mind.

Images of death are not going to create any impact on the trespasser. This is because an individual does not have any experience of death, even in one’s dreams. If we are faced with the prospect of death in our dreams, we tend to wake up. So, whenever one sees images of death, as, say, on a cigarette pack, it is attributed to another person, not oneself. Instead, relatable and fear-inducing images should be used to provide small “injections of fear" and create milliseconds of caution in over-confident trespassers.

Today, most behaviour-change communication is done through mass media. To create a real impact, however, such communication should be at the point of action. All the solutions designed to reduce trespassing accidents in Mumbai were at identified trespassing points.

While solving the problem of trespassing deaths in Mumbai, one learned a big lesson. To really understand a problem and to develop effective solutions for it, one should dive deep into the real source of all human behaviour—the human brain.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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