A Pencil in Space

Our weekly explainer on economics using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 29, Aamir Khan demonstrates the Browser Effect.

Astrology is more common in Indian films than Astronomy, but there is a scene in 3 Idiots that is astronomically funny. Boman Irani, playing a pompous director of a college, tells a group of gathered students that when he was a student, the director of his institute had given him ‘an astronaut’s pen’. Scientists had apparently spent millions to develop this pen, which could write in space, unlike normal pens. Irani says that he intends to pass this pen on to a deserving student.

Aamir Khan, playing a student in this film even though he is just six years younger than Irani in real life, asks why the astronauts did not simply use a pencil. The students twitter — I mean, titter — and the scene ends. Aamir just demonstrated the Browser Effect.

The Browser Effect is not a term you will find in any economics textbook, but as economics is the study of human behaviour, anything to do with how we behave is a suitable subject for Housefull Economics. I first came across the term in an interview of Adam Grant in the podcast, The Art of Charm, hosted by Jordan Harbinger. Grant talks about his book, Originals, in which he described a study carried out by the economist Michael Housman. Housman, trying to figure out why some customer service agents performed better than others, stumbled upon a surprising finding. Looking at data from 30,000 people, he found that workers who used Firefox and Chrome to browse the internet stayed in their jobs 15% longer than those who used Internet Explorer (IE) or Safari, and performed better across a number of other parameters.

Grant’s first guess was that this was because the Firefox/Chrome group happened to be more tech savvy, but Housman found that this wasn’t true either. They key to understanding this behaviour lies, in Grant’s words, in “how they obtained the browser.” IE is built into Windows, and Safari comes with the Mac. They are the default options, used by two-thirds of the workers surveyed. In Grant’s words:

To get Firefox or Chrome, you have to demonstrate some resourcefulness and download a different browser. Instead of accepting the default, you take a bit of initiative to seek out an option that might be better. And that act of initiative, however tiny, is a window into what you do at work.

In other words, those workers who didn’t take the status quo for granted, and made an effort to make things better, even in a matter as mundane as choice of browser, were more likely to get ahead in life. And as Grant says in the podcast with Harbinger, this is key to thriving in a world where AI and automation will soon replace many workers: think differently; question everything.

This is quite what the student played by Aamir Khan does in 3 Idiots.  It is a different matter than his proposed solution is wrong: pencils cannot be used in space because a) they are flammable, and b) broken nibs can drift around in microgravity and be dangerous. But he was thinking differently, and questioning the narrative presented to him, which is the key to getting ahead.

I think there is a high chance that the majority of the readers who have gotten this far have now decided to be non-conformists. Are you one of them? If you are, you are conforming. How are we to resolve this?