Nudge, conditioning and Mumbai

Posted on

Following essay was written for my first psychology course on =) It contains my interest in behavioral economics and combines insights with the stuff I learned in the course. It is still in the peer review process, I hope my fellow students will give a good mark…


Last year, Bloomberg Businessweek (Shaftel, 2012) published an article about an attempt by the administration of Mumbai to decrease the death toll of commuters and people living and working close to train stations in the city. Taking illegal shortcuts over the tracks caused up to 6,000 deaths every year. The transit authority asked the local marketing company FinalMile to come up with a plan to reduce the deaths. The Behavior Architects of FinalMile distributed images of screaming people being run over by trains along the tracks to increase the awareness of the danger. Secondly, the honking of the train horns were changed in order to set it apart from the aural landscape it used to blend in perfectly. As a result of this conditioning, death rates declined around 75% at Wadala station in central Mumbai between 2009 and 2010 (Shaftel, 2012). Therefore, I suggest exploring the feasibility of behavioural architecture aka conditioning to positively change behaviour in societies.

The research for this goes back to the 1920’s, when behavioural psychologist John B. Watson conducted conditioning experiments, of which the Little Albert Experiment is the most famous one known today (Watson & Rayner, 1920). In this experiment, the test subject Little Albert was exposed to stimuli, i.e. a white rat, in order to test his initial, in this case fearless, reaction. Then, Watson et al. (1920) introduced a second, uncomfortable stimulus in the form of a loud noise behind Little Albert every time he faced the initial stimuli. After several repetitions of this experiment, Little Albert showed intensive fear responses towards the stimuli. From this, Watson and his colleagues (1920) concluded that certain behaviour is conditioned rather than biological predetermined.

Although Watson et al. (1920) believe the conditioning would be permanent, experiments conducted by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov showed that conditioning faces extinction (Pavlov, 2006 [1927]). In his experiments with dogs, Pavlov (2006 [1927]) showed that the conditioned reaction to one stimulus, i.e. a blown whistle, would soon disappear after it was no longer accompanied by a second stimulus, the presentation of food, which triggered the dogs’ unconditioned reaction to drool. Thus, conditioning is not permanent. However, since Little Albert was only a pseudonym and his true identity has been kept secret, it is unknown whether or not the conditioning of the experiment lasted.

Nowadays, these conditioning techniques are inspired by the bestselling book Nudge (Sunstein & Thaler, 2008) and become more and more popular amongst behavioural economist when working in public policy projects around the world. The research by Watson (1920), and and in some respect Pavlov (2006 [1927]), show that people are open to conditioning and will change behaviour. Thus, I argue that reasonable conditioning policies or campaigns can help to make the world a better and safer place. In a recent TED talk, behavioural economist Alex Laskey (TEDtalksDirector, 2013) demonstrated how such campaigns can reduce the household consumption of energy, which is both beneficial for the environment and peoples bank account. This shows that the applications are comprehensive. However, in regard to the attempts by FinalMile and the authorities of Mumbai, time will show whether or not some sort of extinction will happen with this case as well. Therefore, further research will be necessary.



Pavlov, I. (2006 [1927]). In Anrep G. V. (Ed.), Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex (G. V. Anrep Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Shaftel, D. (2012). “Behavior architects” tackle india’s social problems. Retrieved June 14, 2013, from

Sunstein, C. R., & Thaler, R. H. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Alex laskey: How behavioral science can lower your energy bill. TEDtalksDirector (Director). (2013).[Video/DVD] Youtube:

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reaction. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1-14.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s