The Ongoing Battle Between Technology and Human Behavior

(Photo: D-Lab)

“It is conventional wisdom that it is possible to reduce exposure to indoor air pollution, improve health outcomes, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the rural areas of developing countries through the adoption of improved cooking stoves,” write Rema Hanna, Esther Duflo, and Michael Greenstone in their new working paper “Up in Smoke:  The Influence of Household Behavior on the Long-Run Impact of Improved Cooking Stoves” (abstract; Washington Post coverage).

But, as the scholars discovered, what seems like an obvious technology fix doesn’t always work. Because, remember, human behavior can be a lot harder to change than we think.

Or, put another way: bummer.

More from the paper’s abstract:

This belief [of new cookstoves leading to improvement] is largely supported by observational field studies and engineering or laboratory experiments.  However, we provide new evidence, from a randomized control trial conducted in rural Orissa, India (one of the poorest places in India), on the benefits of a commonly used improved stove that laboratory tests showed to reduce indoor air pollution and require less fuel.  We track households for up to four years after they received the stove.  While we find a meaningful reduction in smoke inhalation in the first year, there is no effect over longer time horizons.    We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions).  The difference between the laboratory and field findings appear to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves.    Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and usage rates ultimately declined further over time.  More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

It is perhaps tempting to chalk up this failure to low education and the like, but I bet if we put our minds to it we could come up with plenty of examples in which highly educated and well-off people similarly fail to exploit the technology they are offered. Your thoughts?

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  1. Mike B says:

    The counter solution is to continue to refine the design of the stoves until they become a technology people WANT to use because it makes it easier for them to cook their food. Because humans look for the path of least resistance, proper design can harness that laziness instead of fighting against it.

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  2. Sadanand says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • tommertron says:

      Please substantiate your claims that the world is ‘better off’ without those buttons and that the iPhone only offers 33% of the features offered by ‘other phones’. Please list which phones specifically.

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  3. DanSanto says:

    Any chance this paper is available somewhere that’s not behind a paywall? It sounds like an interesting paper, but not $5 of interesting.

    I’d like to know the details of how behavior changed over time so that eventually the new stove was providing little to no benefit in air quality.

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  4. josh says:

    If you want people to use stoves, provide them with TVs. For people not used to modern conveniences, television is the first technology needed. TV is the ultimate propaganda delivery system, making viewers want the products advertised and showing them how and in what contexts to use the products should be used. TV’s first, stoves second.

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    • m.m. says:

      Yes! Get those people that make the “Snuggie” ads to make cookstove ads. Then run them continuously. It works in this country…

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  5. Jeff R says:

    I think seatbelts were a good example. They were available in cars for decades and people still refused to us them. The auto industry first put buzzers in cars, then in the ’80′s they went so far as to have auotmatic selt belt systems. Air bags were designed so that they would protect an occupant who was NOT belted. The government has gone on to pass laws to fine people for not using seat belts.

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  6. Aaron says:

    Ever sign a long legal form without reading it? I wonder if all those regulations and additional disclosures do any good?

    After any crisis the government enacts new legislation and consumers pay attention to disclosures, but after a few years no one bothers checking any more. And it is unlikely education has any bearing on helping consumers protect themselves.

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  7. Speed says:

    “Diffusion of Innovations is a theory that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations

    Innovators > Early Adopters > Early Majority > Late Majority > Laggards.

    First published by Everett Rogers in 1962.

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  8. hanmeng says:

    It’s an old example, but back when we had VCR’s (video cassette recorders), I couldn’t believe how many people were incapable of actually using them to record programs that were broadcast at an inconvenient time. They’d just use them to play prerecorded cassettes. (Actually, a lot of them never programmed the machines at all, so you’d see the digital clock forever blinking 0:00).

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    • Bill says:

      Wow! How’d you get yours to blink 0:00? Ours only ever blinked 12:00. I would have loved to see it blink something else.

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    • Jason says:

      I’m guessing that these new stoves weren’t designed by people who actually used these types of stoves. A lot of newer, environmentally friendly, low energy devices don’t outperform their older, gas guzzling counterparts. Perhaps someone should have asked these Indian stove users in what ways the new stoves were inferior, and then improved the design. You don’t need to scrap an entire project just because the first beta test wasn’t perfect, you just need to work out the bugs.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        I think, actually, that they were designed by people who didn’t use the old technology, and thus didn’t know what problems needed to be fixed.

        I wonder if the fuel-efficient stoves were given away. That routinely leads to low perceived value and lack of use. If I were giving them away, I’d offer them only to school cooking classes. For everyone else, I’d make them buy them, from a native resident whose ability to put food on the table depends on selling them. You want these things to be aspirational goods, so that people feel like they’ve taken a step forward by buying them.

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    • James says:

      Maybe those people who didn’t program their VCRs only wanted to watch pre-recorded programs, and thus the programming capability was irrelevant to them? This is certainly true of many of the devices I own: they all have functions that I’ll probably never use, because those are things I don’t want/need to do.

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