Election Edition Newsletter 

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Welcome to the latest edition of the Human Risk Newsletter, containing lovingly curated Behavioural Science (BeSci) inspired content.

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Coming up in this edition
1. An Economist's unfortunate choice of words is an example of Human Risk in action;

2. A pollster who didn’t believe his own poll illustrates an important Cognitive Bias;

3. A supermarket uses a BeSci Intervention to discourage people from using plastic bags with interesting results;

4. UK broadcasters keep making unfortunate mispronunciations of a high profile politician's name. Why it happens is Something that made me think; and

5. A cartoon that explains how to present detailed information is my Something for the weekend recommendation.

Human Risk in action

Economists are hired to make forecasts and write economic research, not to get their employer into political hot water. Yet that's what one of them inadvertently did last week, thereby giving us a perfect case study of Human Risk.
Economists are paid to express their opinions. Which is precisely what Paul Donovan, Chief Economist at UBS Wealth Management, was doing when he described the impact of African swine flu on the Chinese Economy. Donovan, who describes his style of analysis as "Economics without jargon, but with sarcasm" commented that:

“Chinese consumer prices rose. This was mainly due to sick pigs. Does this matter? It matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China. It does not really matter to the rest of the world."

While native English speakers will recognise that the reference to "Chinese pig" meant the animal, it was interpreted by many in China to be a humiliating comment about Chinese people. 

On the face of it, this is a simple case of "lost in translation", as Stephen Matthews, a linguistics professor at the University of Hong Kong, told the Financial Times:

The perceived insult is derived either from a misreading of the English text by a non-native speaker or from a poor Chinese translation. Either way, the author is not at fault.”

Meanwhile, this Twitter thread provided a seemingly plausible explanation for how the "misreading" might have arisen. 

The offending text was expunged from UBS’ website, and Donovan issued an apology in his commentary the following morning, as well as on TV:
Yet the fallout continued. Bloomberg reported that regulators were investigating the issue and, as this Reuters article explains:

UBS has lost a lead role on a U.S. dollar bond deal for state-backed China Railway Construction Corp, just days after a Chinese outcry over a senior UBS economist’s use of “pig” in connection with Chinese food price inflation.

While UBS apologized for the remark on Thursday and put the analyst on leave on Friday, the furor led Haitong International Securities, a leading Chinese brokerage, to suspend all business with the Swiss group as some Chinese bankers and analysts criticized the bank for a lack of cultural awareness.

This situation offers a perfect case study for Human Risk in the 21st Century. Not just as an illustration of how a relatively minor decision can very rapidly have major consequences. But also in the challenge of resolving the issue. Putting Donovan on leave of absence buys UBS a little time, but a decision will need to be made at some point. 

Unlike many other risk categories, it is hard to create a detailed playbook to respond to this type of issue; whichever way UBS ultimately deals with it, has the potential to cause further damage. Human Risk begets more Human Risk.

On the one hand, there are obvious risks of adverse consequences in China, a crucial market for UBS. On the other, the risk of undermining the independence of its team of Economists whose value to clients is in being able to give independent analysis on a timely basis.

Part of the reason Donovan's output is popular is precisely because of the style in which he presents things. Digital distribution of his opinions is necessary to reach the desired audience, but it equally places the content under greater public scrutiny. Restricting what an Economist can say or how they can say it, risks undermining the perceived quality of the product. Firing Donovan might appease the critics but would create others. Like The Economist magazine who last weekend wrote:

For those who know Mr Donovan, the injustice is obvious...If UBS ends up firing him, it will have made a pig’s ear of the whole thing.

Admittedly it is an unusual situation: not every employee has Donovan's profile, platform or need to publish time-critical flash views to a global audience. But it does nicely illustrate why I firmly believe that understanding Human Risk is so important.
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Bi-Weekly Cognitive Bias

A polling company that suppressed the results of a poll because they differed wildly from other polls, nicely illustrates a Cognitive Bias called “Herding”.

Pollsters haven’t exactly got a reputation for accuracy these days. In several high profile cases, including the 2016 US election and the Brexit referendum in the UK, their predictions turned out to be completely wrong. Which, to put it mildly, isn’t terribly helpful when you are in the business of making accurate predictions.

So you might be surprised to see this Sydney Morning Herald headline

The Firm's CEO explained that they had "chickened out" (his words) of publishing the poll because the results it predicted were inconsistent with those produced by other pollsters.

He justified this by saying that: 

"No-one wants to release a poll that is wildly out of step ... we didn't want to be seen as having an inaccurate poll"

However, once the election result came out, it turned out that their "rogue" poll had actually called it correctly. It was the rival polls that were wrong.  

Reluctance to do something that goes against collective "wisdom" illustrates a Cognitive Bias called Herding; using the actions of others as a guide to sensible behaviour, instead of forming a view on our own.

From an evolutionary perspective, herding makes a lot of sense. By copying the behaviour of others, we become part of a homogenous group that can share resources and minimise the risks to the individual member. 

However, as this Psychology Today article explains, when applied to ideas and opinions, it also makes us susceptible to "Group Think" and, in the case of the polling company, distrust our own potentially more sensible judgements. For more on Herding, I recommend this article.

To be fair to pollsters, predicting elections is hard — the reasons why are explained in an article entitled Why Opinion Polls Keep Getting It Wrong.

Obvious spoiler alert: it’s mainly because the people they poll, often don’t tell them the truth.
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A BeSci Intervention

A Canadian supermarket wanted to discourage its customers from using plastic bags.  The BeSci Intervention they came up was innovative, but backfired somewhat.
Quick update from the last newsletter: Hot on the heels of the re-designed supermarket receipt, a team of designers working for Lean advocate Paul Akers has come up with a proposal for a more user-friendly airline boarding pass. 
Given the purpose of a boarding pass is to help manage the boarding process and a key part of that is getting passengers to the right gate on time, you'd think they'd have prioritised that aspect. A nice illustration of how Behavioural Design can deliver better results. Now on to this Edition's Intervention...
When charging customers for plastic bags didn't have the desired effect of reducing demand for them, East West market in Vancouver came up with what they thought was a cunning plan to make using the bags less appealing. 

Instead of Economic incentives, they opted for social embarrassment employing a slogan of:

Avoid the shame.
Bring a reusable bag.

To deliver the proverbial shame, they printed logos on their bags that logically no-one would be proud to be seen with:
They also released a video to explain the decision:
Unsurprisingly, the move generated a lot of media coverage. As a result, everyone was in on the "joke" and rather than being embarrassed by carrying the bags, they became popular items; demand for them increased rather than decreased.

As this New York Times article explains, the move didn't just backfire from an environmental perspective. Customers accused the store of hypocrisy, pointing out that they package much of their fresh produce in plastic.

All of which goes to show that if you want to nudge people to behave in a certain way, you need to do it authentically; they’ll spot insincerity or hypocrisy and react accordingly.  And if you're going to use a form of social pressure, don't inadvertently create the opposite kind by publicising what you're doing. Of course, if their objective was actually to generate publicity, then it’s more than achieved that.
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Something that made me think

Attempts to explain why broadcasters have difficulty pronouncing the name of the next potential UK Prime Minister shows how susceptible we are to Framing.
Reader warning:  for reasons that will become obvious, some links in this section (but not the body of the text) contain language that some readers or their employer's profanity filters might find offensive. I therefore recommend you don't click on the ones I've marked NSFW if you're easily offended or are reading this in a sensitive environment. You can find a web version of this newsletter at

When you have a name like mine, there is the potential for people to amuse themselves by juxtaposing the initial letters of my first and last names. However, when that happens, it usually is intentional, not accidental. And, for the avoidance of doubt, never original.   

What I deal with, pales into insignificance compared to the experience of a high profile UK politician who could be our next Prime Minister.
Jeremy Hunt(that's him in the picture on the left) who is currently standing for election to the leadership of the Conservative Party and will become UK Prime Minister if he wins, is regularly referred to in live broadcast media as [NSFW] something far less polite. People have been wondering why.
Linguistics experts at the [NSFW] University of Pennsylvania's Language Log posited several theories.  As an expert in this matter I've given each a plausibility rating:

Firstly there are other high-profile Jeremy's in the UK, many of whose surnames being with a C.  Like TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson and, more relevantly, Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn. I rate this a 2/10.

Secondly, Hunt used to be Culture Secretary, so it was suggested that the slip of the tongue might be as a result of journalists being used to saying "Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary". (3/10)

The third theory is that as a former Health Minister, he made unpopular decisions and people's use of the expletive is a subconscious criticism of him. (7/10; a second order impact)

By far the most plausible explanation (9/10) is that now that the error has become commonplace, broadcasters are trying so hard (and probably being reminded by their bosses) not to say it, that they're likely to do precisely the opposite. 

To understand this better I recommend watching the following (3 min) YouTube clip called You Aren't Supposed To Watch This Video which explains Reactance; the idea that being told not to do something makes us want to do it more. 
You aren't supposed to watch this video
Given Hunt is standing in an election at the moment, he might like to take political inspiration from his misfortune. In a 2016 book called "Don't Think of an Elephant!", Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff explored the concept of Framing in a political context and in particular, how Donald Trump was using it against his opponent Hillary Clinton. This article explains it in more detail.

One of the main lessons in the book is in the title: if you negate a frame, then you strengthen it. Put simply, when you read that title, you'll struggle not to think of an elephant. 

For more on the Jeremy Hunt phenomenon, I recommend articles from The Guardian and Wired magazine entitled [NSFW] The Curse of Jeremy Hunt and [NSFW] Here's Why People can't stop calling Jeremy Hunt the C-Word.
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Something for the weekend

An idea for how to lay out an academic poster might not seem particularly interesting or relevant to non-academics.  But what one PhD student came up with, is a masterclass in Behavioural Design, so useful to us all.

My recommendation this time is a delightful 20 min cartoon explainer video created by PhD Student Mike Morrison. Bear with me when I tell you what it's about; it is relevant, even if you've never seen the thing the video is looking to improve.

Frustrated from his experience at events called Poster Sessions (no I hadn't heard of them either), which are essentially academic versions of trade fairs where the primary means of transmitting information is on posters, Morrison came up with an innovative poster layout. Here he is, doing his finest Infomercial Presenter impression. 

Still with me? Good. As most of you aren't academics, the reason I'm recommending this is that in his explainer video (link below), Morrison effectively gives a Master Class in Behavioural Design. By thinking about how the target audience actually behaves in reality rather than the way in which we might like them to, he designs something that is far more effective.

In short, it's Morrison's approach that I'm recommending, rather than the poster use case he's solving for. 

That said, the principles for how to present information to a target audience aren’t just academic: they apply equally to presentations in other contexts.

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Until the next time...

That's it for another edition. But before I go, a bonus recommendation. If you're yet to watch the Chernobyl TV series, make sure you do. I loved it and found it so fascinating from a Human Risk perspective that I blogged about it in What We Can Learn From My New Favourite TV Show. It's so good, I'm now watching it again!

Feedback, of whatever kind, is always appreciated. If you’ve enjoyed the newsletter, share it with your friends and colleagues. If you haven’t enjoyed it, keep it to yourself!

Finally, another plug for Human Risk Limited. To find out more about the ways in which I can help you use BeSci in Risk, Compliance, Conduct, Ethics and more, or if you want me to speak on the topic visit

Until the next time.


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