Safety Campaigns Lead to Dangerous Outcomes (Video & Podcast)

10 min read
Safety Campaigns Lead to Dangerous Outcomes (Video & Podcast)

Armchair psychology often undermines safety campaigns and other marketing messages, due to psychological phenomena such as the boomerang effect. Overcoming these problems requires using best practices from behavioral science. That’s the key take-away message of this episode of the Wise Decision Maker Show, which describes how safety campaigns can lead to dangerous outcomes.

Video: “Safety Campaigns Lead to Dangerous Outcomes”

Podcast: “Safety Campaigns Lead to Dangerous Outcomes”

Links Mentioned in Videocast and Podcast


Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the wise decision maker show where we help you make the wisest and most profitable decisions. My name is Dr. Gleb Tsipursky. I’m the CEO of disaster avoidance experts, which sponsors the wise decision makers show. And today we’ll talk about safety complaints, specifically how they can lead to dangerous outcomes. As an example, let’s talk about highway signs, electronic safety message signs and high highways. You’ve probably seen them before on lots of American highways. If you drive, they’re everywhere. And they usually talk about the consequences of bad driving, you know, what child for motorcycles or something like that? Pretty frequently, the electronic safety signs change, they say, Hey, here’s how many people have been killed so far this year, in this state, so usually state based, so the number of driving-related deaths per year in this state. And of course, that number increases throughout the year. So that’s another type of message. That’s another type of safety campaign, watch out for motorcycles. Buckle up is another campaign, click it or ticket meaning to wear your safety belt, don’t drive drunk. There’s another type of safety campaign and this safety campaign with a number of deaths is very, very frequent. Now, what’s the assumption behind these safety signs? Well, the common assumption when you think about it, right, but it seems intuitive, is that these signs are used for fatalities, right? Make sense that specifically with a driving deaths per year, as the increase for the year, people should drive more carefully, if they see that others are killed, and especially as they see people are killed more, more fraud the year, you know, if it’s like zero people killed in January, first, and maybe one person killed in New Year drunk driving a couple of people. And then throughout the year 100 people killed by March or something like that, and 300 killed by May. And by October maybe 1100 killed or something like that. And so presumably, the more people are listed, the more people should pay attention to the signs and not drive in such a way that would cause them to be killed. Right? That makes sense. Well, that’s armchair psychology, it’s intuitive psychology. And sometimes what seems to make sense to us doesn’t actually work in practice. It’s often unsubstantiated by the research in cognitive science. It’s the result of intuitive gut reactions, what we feel works, rather than what actually works. And so that’s due to cognitive bias is these dangerous judgment errors that our minds make, because of how they’re wired, that don’t really reflect how reality works. And so that’s bad decision making. So let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about a study that came out recently studying the impact of safety signs. So this was a major study that examined seven years worth of data, a lot of data on a campaign that was going on in Texas for one week, each month. So each month, there was a week of the month that specifically showed the fatalities that week, and during other weeks of the month, the Science showed other messages like don’t drive drunk, click it or ticket watch out for motorcycles and solid other messages. So the nice thing about electronic safety signs is that they can vary their messages. And so during one week, each month, that campaign, the safety campaign was specifically focused on fatalities in Texas, so far this year, so one week each month. So there are 880, electric truck highway signs in Texas that this study looked at, which would show the number of these model deaths in the state per year. And what the study found was 880 signs in Texas, for a campaign that ran one week each month. So that’s nice, because it provides a natural experiment, comparing it to other weeks, right. So presumably, if you have a week in September, one week in September is going to look much like another week in September, it’s not going to be extremely different than if there were some differences that they will generally balance out for the year. So it’s not like you know, it was all concentrated on the safety campaign during one month, when you might have unusual driving compared to other months, you know, like summer holidays or something like that. When people drive more. Now, it was just steady throughout the year. That’s what was clearly happening. And so you can compare what was happening during that week of the month, let’s say the week of the month of March rolls around, you can compare to the other weeks in March when it didn’t run. And you can compare the weekend October that the safety campaign ran to the other weeks, October when it didn’t run. It was a very good experiment. And what the study found was that the number of crashes increased by over 1.5% 1.52% within three miles of the signs, during the safety campaign weeks, so think about your goal is to decrease crashes, right? That’s the point, you’re thinking, well, if I have those signs on, people will drive more safely. That’s the intuitive armchair psychology that tells us how fields actually work. But what the study found was that the number of fatalities, on average, increased by 1.52%, within three miles of a sentence. So that is, that’s during the weeks of the safety campaign, of course. So that’s really, really bad. That is, really, that’s the opposite of what you want, right? That’s the point. That’s the opposite of what you want. So when the science didn’t show fatality information, there were less crashes. When the Saints showed fatality information, there were more crashes during that one week, per month, then there were when the fatality signs were showing. So that’s clearly the cause of the signs. And that is a huge problem. Especially because it’s not simply Texas. I mean, many states do the same campaign. So I’m here in Columbus, Ohio Go Bucs, right. And we hear the same things, I see those fatality signs on highways all the time, saying the 300 people killed so far this year, 600 people killed so far this year. What is all that sort of stuff? Now, the crash was the consequence, what is the reasoning? Why does that happen? Why does it go against our intuitions about what we feel should happen? It’s destructive driving, that’s the problem, then drivers are distracted by the science. And so the attention is grabbed by the science, and it causes drivers to be distracted as a result of the science. So people feel anxious, they see the science, and that leads to an increase in the number of deaths. So that’s a big problem. That distracted driving is what leads to deaths by anxiety. So people feel suicides, they feel anxious, and then they see more deaths. Now, how do we know this? Is this? How do we know that that’s what’s actually going on? That it’s people’s anxiety? Well, the really cool thing about this experiment, or a really helpful thing that helps demonstrate that it’s the anxiety that people experience is that the number of crashes grows throughout the year. So the percentage of crashes. Again, it’s 1.52%, on average, throughout the year, more within three miles of the signs after seeing the sign with a fatality message, but the percentage grows throughout the year. So that is really crucial because you see a higher count. So let’s say by the end of January, there’s a pretty low crash rate. In fact, you see that the signs cause a negative crash, a decrease in crash rates overall, in January, because there are so few people listed on the site. So you know what 10 people killed. So people aren’t as distracted, aren’t as anxious and the sign actually works to trigger them to drive more carefully. So they actually have a positive effect. So they decrease crashes. But as the number of people listed as killed on the signs increases throughout the year, the percentage of crashes increases, so goes from less crashes to more crashes, more crashes. And so by the end of the year, it’s something like free, free ish percent, that was a pretty high increase in crashes compared to the other weeks. And so then, so we can clearly see the percentage of crashes, not the weather, because very clearly, we see that it resets again in January, to a very low rate. So that’s a reset. So there’s a sharp break between December when there’s a very significant increase, quite a bit more than 1.5%, five 2%, it’s 3% something in December, and then in January drops to minus 1%, or something like that crashes. So it’s not the weather, it’s not anything like that, it’s just the number of people listed as killed on the site and the anxiety that causes that is really critically important. And that, of course shows that it is specifically the signs and specifically the listing of the people killed, the number of people killed, who are listed there is what causes people to be anxious and distracted, and then causes crashes. So that’s and then we also know another thing about the crashes is that most of the crashes that happen are multiple car crashes. And that is typically when multiple car crashes happen when people are somewhat distracted when people are strongly distracted. What happens is an increase both in single car crashes and in multiple car crashes. But when people are somewhat distracted, there’s an increase in multiple car crashes, because it’s much easier to have a multiple car crash than a single car crash. So you have to be significantly more substantially more distracted to have a single car crash. The social costs so this campaign has a lot of social costs, the annual cost the social costs is that it causes this 1.5% 2% increase in crashes. An average call has a social cost overall burden of 377 million per year, so 377 million per year. That’s because it leads to 2600 more crashes overall, and 16 more deaths of those 2600 crashes, and of course, 16 more deaths, but a whole bunch of people injured and cars wrecked. So that’s the social call. That’s the social cost. And this is just Texas. So we’re talking only about Texas. Like I said, many many other states conduct similar safety conveniences. Other studies show more evidence for why this study, conclusions are accurate. So we have another study showing that driving quality gets worse as people get more anxious. So as people get more anxious, we have clear research showing that people drive cars because they’re distracted, right? So a different study shows that messages showing death count how many people died, do cause anxiety. So we have a study that shows that one study shows that messages listing how many people died per day, so far that year, caused anxiety. We have a separate study showing that, well, if people feel anxiety, they enjoy force. So that provides further support for the conclusions of this study, that the signs highway signs cause a great increase in crashes. 2600 more crashes, with 16 more deaths with a social cost of 377 million. That’s pretty huge. This phenomenon, the broader phenomenon that we’re talking about is called the boomerang effect. The boomerang effect, that is a mental phenomenon when an intervention. So intervention produces an effect opposite to what was intended. This is discussed in psychology. So this is a psychological phenomenon when you are trying to get an intervention done. And that produces an effect. That’s the opposite of what you wanted to do. Like of course, increasing the number of crashes. This happens pretty often. And of course, you would not be thinking about well intervention screen boomerang effects, but they create them pretty frequently. I’ll give you another example. Talk about public health, right, there was a national youth anti drug media campaign down in 1994, the late 1990s, early 2000s. So there was marketing targeted at youth aged nine to 18. With anti drunk messaging, especially targeting marijuana. So the US Congress dedicated $1 billion, that’s a lot of money to this campaign between 1988 and 2004. And there was a stalled study of the impact. So the 2008 study funded by the National Institutes of Health, and found that, indeed, the campaign was effective in exposing youth that on average, you’ve got exposed to two to three ads per week, and an average getting more exposure to this campaign, the more exposed you’ve tended to be made people more likely to use marijuana, not less than people were more likely to use marijuana as a result of getting exposure to this campaign. So the Congress $1 billion caused more people from nine to 18 to use marijuana. Why? That seems weird, right? You would think that it should cause less you to use marijuana? Well, the thing is, the study found that when they saw the ads, they got the impression that their peers used marijuana widely, and therefore, well, you know, I should use marijuana myself because my peers use it right? Based on those advertisements that they saw. That’s a boomerang effect. Just like people feeling anxious. So that feeling of anxiety after seeing the signs with highway crashes, fatalities so far, causes them to be more likely to crash. So the sign was intended to cause them to be less likely to crash. People who saw the ads were more likely to use marijuana on average, because they felt that the ads conveyed to them that their peers use marijuana, right. Again, armchair psychology, so the obviously Congress and the design There’s ads thought that the ads would cause youth to use less marijuana. But they follow the practice and volunteer psychology. They use their intuitions. They didn’t actually research what works well, and what doesn’t work well, just like the Highway Safety Signs didn’t research what actually works and what doesn’t work well. And there are plenty of other situations not something public policy, like the highway safety or drug campaign. But let’s talk about tech. So Apple launched a major advertising campaign promoting remote work using its tools, not for its staff, but using its tools to Apple, all the Apple products, right hardware and software. But a week before the campaign ads, the ad campaign went live for Apple for staff to return to the office three days a week so they announced the forced return to the office a week before that campaign went live. Now it says though this force returned to the office kind of a timeline and like two months, you have to return to the office, and then the ad campaign went live. Now how do you think it made staff feel when they saw the ad campaign, that hey, use Apple products to work remotely? It’s great. And Apple itself forces its staff to come to the office. Of course, Apple was targeting its consumers, its clients, not the staff, its customers, not the staff with the ad campaign. But of course, the staff saw the ad campaign, and they were pretty outraged. So many resigned, many many protested and opposed this number, including the top executive that is the head of Apple’s AI division, who explicitly said that he resigned because of Apple’s flexible work policy toward remote work. So why did these sorts of interventions fail, whether in public policy or in private policy, private approaches, like in the Apple case? Well, because people don’t do not use? Well, you might have heard of the term nudge, which is a non coercive method to shape one’s environment and influence people’s behavior in a predictable manner. So leaders try to nudge the opinion of subordinates and public policymakers try to nudge the opinions of the citizens. And of course, companies try to nudge the opinions of customers and staff. Unfortunately, using armchair psychology, they don’t actually solve the research on how to not use it well, they don’t consult behavioral scientists, they use armchair psychology, their intuitions of what should work. So they fall for these cognitive biases, these dangerous judgment errors, not realizing that they’ll often end up with something like the boomerang effect, instead of talking to behavioral scientists to help design and test campaigns. Now, how do you address this problem? How do you make better interventions? While you won’t be surprised that you really should consult behavioral science experts on nudges, before launching your intervention? Right, that seems now that we’re talking about this pretty clear that if you don’t want the boomerang effect in pretty serious matters, that are pretty deadly, I mean, literally life and death with the highways, right? That is for public health with a marijuana, you want to consult behavioral science experts, and then you want to conduct small scale testing interventions before wide rollout. So as a behavioral scientist, I’ll tell you that I can’t absolutely predict the effects of something. I can, you know, forecast that something is more likely to work and is less likely to work. But what I’ll tell you is I’m not a perfect predictor of people’s behaviors and opinions. So what you’ll want to do is do a number of experiments and try out a number of things, and then do those small scale tests before rolling out intervention on a large scale. So maybe look at something like a couple of dozen roadway safety signs, you know, some representative areas of Texas for a couple of months and see what kind of impacts the various messaging on them would have to increase or decrease fatalities, right? Look at it throughout the scope of the year, because it will change of course for the year, and then roll it out based on that evaluation. So the realizing rollout based on testing, and what you can do to do this. So that’s what you want to do. And this is an example. And of course, the same thing for messaging for public health, you want to first for marijuana messaging, you want to first do the messaging on a small scale, maybe in a couple of cities and see the impact before rolling out massive. So what can you do to help address this? Well, you can contact your elected officials and tell them to actually do a proper behavioral science based study before rollout. So go on against those gut reactions in armchair psychology and help make the best decisions for public policy in matters of health, in matters of life and death, like Highway Safety, and all other sorts of issues. Alright everyone, I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the wise decision makers show again. I’m Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, and I’m the CEO of disaster avoidance experts which sponsors this podcast. Please review, leave a review with your thoughts. We’d love to hear your thoughts and it helps other folks discover the show and gain the same benefits that you’re getting from checking it out. Email me with your thoughts about the show at gleb at disaster avoidance I’d love to have your thoughts and a bill that will enable me to make the show better. And of course, please subscribe to it so I’m whether you’re checking it out on iTunes or YouTube. Please subscribe to make sure to get further episodes of the podcast and check out the show notes which have much more information about this topic with all the links for the studies that are described in the podcast. Alright everyone, I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of the wise decision making career show. In the meantime, the wisest and most profitable decisions to make friends 

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Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps tech and finance industry executives drive collaboration, innovation, and retention in hybrid work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which helps organizations adopt a hybrid-first culture, instead of incrementally improving on the traditional office-centric culture. A best-selling author of 7 books, he is especially well-known for his global best-sellers Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019) and The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020). His newest book is Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in prominent venues. They include Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Time, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Fast Company, Boston Globe, New York Daily News, Fox News, USA Today, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from his research background as a behavioral scientist. After spending 8 years getting a PhD and lecturing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he served for 7 years as a professor at the Ohio State University’s Decision Sciences Collaborative and History Department. A proud Ukrainian, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio (Go Bucks!). In his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn @dr-gleb-tsipursky, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook @DrGlebTsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for the free Wise Decision Maker Course at