Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cognitive Science and Railroad Tracks

After writing last week about Dan Pink's chronicles of emotionally intelligent signage, I enjoyed reading a story in this past weekend's Boston Globe about an experiment that Indian authorities have undertaken in an attempt to reduce railroad crossing deaths in and around Mumbai. The authorities, alarmed that, on average, trains kill 10 people each day as they're crossing tracks in and near Mumbai, sought the help of Final Mile, a “behavior architecture” firm, "which uses the lessons of cognitive psychology to influence people on the brink of making decisions." By taking psychology into account in developing methods to dissuade people from crossing railroad tracks illegally—by recognizing that people usually ignore traditional "caution" signs—Final Mile has designed and implemented a number of interventions that have proven dramatically successful.

The interventions are as subtle as they are ingenious. The author of the article describes them well:
First, Final Mile painted alternate sets of railway ties in fluorescent yellow — five painted, five unpainted, and so on — to tackle what is known as the Leibowitz Hypothesis. As laid out in a 1985 issue of American Scientist by experimental psychologist Herschel W. Leibowitz, the hypothesis found that we frequently underestimate the speed at which large objects move. Leibowitz, who died earlier this year, first observed this with aircraft, and in 2003, a pair of scientists proved the hypothesis for trains. “The misperception happens because the brain has no frame of reference, no way to evaluate roughly how fast a train is moving,” said Satish Krishnamurthy, a Final Mile behavior architect. But with the new paint job, Krishnamurthy said, “the mind now has a way to gauge the train’s speed, by observing how fast it traverses these ties.”

Second, the consultants replaced the stick-figure signboards with a graphic three-part tableau, featuring in extreme close-up the horror-struck face of a man being plowed down by a locomotive. “We hired an actor,” Krishnamurthy said, smiling, “because it had to be realistic.” They were drawing on the research of Joseph LeDoux, a New York University professor of neuroscience and psychology. LeDoux studies the links between emotion and memory, and in particular the mechanism of fear. “Emotional memory is stored in the nonconscious part of your brain,” Dominic said. “If you’ve been in a car crash and, months later, you hear tires squealing, your heart rate goes up and you start to sweat. That’s because your emotional memory has been stirred up.” The new signs dispense with explanatory text and instead attempt to trigger an emotional memory of fear.

Final Mile’s third intervention required train drivers to switch from one long warning whistle to two short, sharp blasts. By way of explanation, Dominic cited a 2007 paper from the Stanford University School of Medicine, which found that brain activity — and hence alertness — peaks during short silences between two musical notes. “The silence sets up a kind of expectation in the brain,” said Vinod Menon, the paper’s senior author and a behavioral scientist working with the Stanford Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Lab. “That’s the way it works in music, and it isn’t inconceivable that it would work similarly with train whistles.”
I'm excited not only by the work that Final Mile is doing but also by the willingness of public officials to experiment in the development of public policy. The article notes that government agencies from around the world are starting to take psychology into account when creating mechanisms to communicate with—and sometimes warn—the public.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jeff, we were pleasantly surprised at the intent and commitment of Indian Railways. They quickly got the idea, showed tremendous urgency in implementation. Having seen the results, they are now wanting to do a lot more work in this space. Hopefully, more agencies will show the courage to experiment. Ram, Final Mile