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Gleb Tsipursky


The Danger of Armchair Psychology

Quality professionals should test their intuitions before deploying internal and external quality initiatives

Published: Wednesday, August 3, 2022 - 12:03

Imagine you’re driving along the highway and you see an electric sign that reads, “79 traffic deaths this year.” Would this make you less likely to crash your car shortly after seeing the sign? Perhaps you think it would have no effect?

Neither are true. According to a recent peer-reviewed study that just came out in Science, you would be more likely to crash, not less. Talk about unintended consequences.

The study examined seven years of data from 880 electric highway signs that showed the number of deaths so far this year for one week each month as part of a safety campaign. The researchers found that the number of crashes increased by 1.52 percent within three miles of the signs on these safety campaign weeks, compared to the other weeks of the month when the signs didn’t show fatality information.

That’s about the same effect as raising the speed limit by four miles or decreasing the number of highway troopers by 10 percent. The scientists calculated that the social costs of such fatality messages amount to $377 million per year, with 2,600 additional crashes and 16 deaths.

The cause? Distracted driving. These “in-your-face” messages, the study finds, grab your attention and undermine your driving for the same reason you shouldn’t text and drive.

Supporting their hypothesis, the scientists discovered that the increase in crashes is higher when the reported deaths are higher. Thus, later in the year as the number of reported deaths on the sign goes up, so does the percentage of crashes. And it’s not the weather: The effect of showing the fatality messages decreased by 11 percent between January and February, as the displayed number of deaths was reset for the year. The scientists also uncovered that the increase in crashes is largest in more complex road segments that require more focus from the driver.

Their research also aligns with other studies. One proved that increasing people’s anxiety causes them to drive worse. Another showed drivers fatality messages in a laboratory setting and determined that doing so increased cognitive load, leading to distracted driving.

If the authorities actually paid attention to cognitive science research, they would never have launched these fatality message advertisements. Instead, they relied on armchair psychology and followed their gut intuitions on what should work, rather than measuring what does work. The result was what scholars call a boomerang effect, meaning an intervention that produces an effect opposite to what was intended.

Unfortunately, such boomerang effects happen all too often. Consider another safety campaign, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign between 1998 and 2004, which the U.S. Congress funded to the tune of $1 billion. Using professional advertising and public relations firms, the campaign created comprehensive marketing efforts that targeted youths aged 9 to 18 with anti-drug messaging, focusing on marijuana. The messages were spread by television, radio, websites, magazines, movie theaters, and other venues, as well as through partnerships with civic, professional, and community groups. The intention was for youths to see two to three ads per week.

A 2008 National Institutes of Health-funded study found that, indeed, youths did get exposure to two to three ads per week. However, on the whole, more exposure to advertising from the campaign led youths to be more likely to use marijuana, not less.

Why? The authors found evidence that youths who saw the ads got the impression that their peers used marijuana widely. As a result, the youths became more likely to use marijuana themselves. Indeed, the study found that those youths who saw more ads had a stronger belief that other youths used marijuana, and this belief made starting to use marijuana more likely. Talk about a boomerang effect.

Of course, it’s not only government authorities whose campaigns suffer from boomerang effects. Consider Apple’s recent highly popular “Apple at Work” advertising campaign. Its newest episode, launched in March 2022, is called “Escape from the Office.” It features a group of employees who, when told they must come back to the office as the pandemic winds down, instead choose to quit and launch an office-less startup using Apple products.

A week before the launch of its ad campaign extolling remote work and slamming the requirement to return to the office, Apple required its own employees to return to the office. That juxtaposition did not play well with the 7,500 of Apple’s 165,000 employees who are part of an Apple Slack room for remote work.

One employee wrote, “They’re trolling us, right?” and others termed the ad “distasteful” and “insulting.” After all, the ad illustrates how Apple helps corporate employees work from home effectively. Why can’t Apple’s own staff do so? That hypocrisy added to the frustration of Apple employees, with some quitting. Again, a clear boomerang effect at play.

We know that message campaigns—whether on electric signs or through advertisements—can have a substantial effect. That fits broader extensive research from cognitive science about how people can be affected by nudges, meaning noncoercive efforts to shape the environment to influence people’s behavior in a predictable manner. For example, a successful nudging campaign to reduce car accidents involved using smartphone notifications that helped drivers evaluate their performance during each trip. Using nudges that informed drivers of their personal average performance and personal best performance, as measured by accelerometers and gyroscopes, resulted in a reduction of accident frequency of more than one and a half years.

Those with authority—in government or business—frequently attempt to nudge other people based on their mental model of how others should behave. Unfortunately, their mental models are often fundamentally flawed, due to cognitive biases. These mental blind spots affect decision making in all life areas, including business and relationships. Fortunately, recent research has shown effective strategies to defeat these dangerous judgment errors, such as constraining our choices to best practices and measuring the impact of our interventions.

Unfortunately, such reliance on best practice and measurements of interventions of such techniques is done too rarely. Fatality signage campaigns have been in place for many years without assessment. The federal government ran the anti-drug campaign from 1998 to 2004 until finally the measurement study came out in 2008.

Instead, what authorities should do is consult cognitive and behavioral science experts about nudges before they start their interventions. And what the experts will tell you is that it’s critical to evaluate the effect of proposed nudges in small-scale experiments. That’s because, while extensive research shows nudges do work, only 62 percent have a statistically significant effect, and up to 15 percent of desired interventions may backfire.

Nonetheless, Texas, along with at least 28 other states, has pursued mortality messaging campaigns for years without testing by behavioral scientists. Behavioral science is critical here: When road signs are tested by those without expertise in how our minds work—such as engineers—the results are often counterproductive.

For example, a group of engineers at Virginia Tech did a study of road signs that used humor, popular culture, sports, and other nontraditional themes with the goal of provoking an emotional response. They measured the neuro-cognitive response of participants who read the signs and found that “messages with humor and messages that use wordplay and rhyme elicit significantly higher levels of cognitive activation in the brain... and increase in cognitive activation is a proxy for increased attention.” The researchers decided that because the drivers paid more attention, therefore the signs worked. By that definition the fatality signs worked, too: They caused drivers to pay attention to the fatality numbers, and therefore be distracted from the road.

That’s an example of how not to do a study. The goal of testing road signs should be the consequent number of crashes, not whether someone is emotionally aroused and cognitively loaded by the sign.

But there is good news. First, in most cases it’s very doable to run an effective, small-scale study to test an intervention. States could set up a safety campaign with 100 electric signs in diverse settings and evaluate the effect over three months on driver crashes after seeing the signs. Policymakers could ask researchers to track the data as they run ads for a few months in a variety of nationally representative markets and assess their effectiveness.

More broadly, any quality professional should avoid relying on armchair psychology and test their intuitions before deploying internal and external quality initiatives. That’s why quality initiatives so often fail: We think people will respond one way and they respond in a completely different way, due to the boomerang effect or other issues. Our feelings about how other people may respond often lead us astray due to our mental blind spots. This requires quality professionals to show humility and decrease their confidence in gut impulses.


About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps quality professionals make the wisest decisions on the future of work as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. A proud Ukrainian American, he is the best-selling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His cutting-edge thought leadership has been featured in more than 650 articles in prominent publications such as Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and USA Today. His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and more than 15 years in academia as a cognitive scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipurskyLinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course



I really found the article valuable. I am working on a quality awareness program at my organization and after reading this article started thinking about the boomerang effect and considering adjusting. 

Great article.