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Behavioural Science: From Policy to Public

By Ronak Pol

Behavioural research is increasingly being used to solve pressing policy problems that have plagued the society for several years.

It differs from the traditional policy approach, which involves providing infrastructure to deal with the issue and is primarily a supply-side approach. Consequently, the assumption is that the problem is a lack of infrastructure but is this really true?

According to Kaushik Basu, the Chief Economist of the World Bank, “standard economic policies are effective only after the right cognitive propensities and social norms are in place”. Within this context, the article will explore simple policy issues that can be tackled with the help of behavioural science.

Solving the Problem of Railway Deaths

The Indian Railways reports that nearly 15,000 people die every year while crossing the tracks. Almost 6,000 of these deaths occur in Mumbai’s suburbs alone. It is natural to attribute these deaths to poor infrastructure making the construction of more overhead crossings and barricades the standard policy prescription but, does this solve the problem?

Despite the continuous efforts of the Railways Department, the death rates have not dropped, clearly indicating that the problem is not a lack of infrastructure. Final Mile, a Mumbai-based firm, has found that using fictionalised photographs of a person getting run over by a train reduces trespassing deaths by around 10 percent to even 75 percent, in some cases.

Final Mile, a Mumbai-based firm, has found that using fictionalised photographs of a person getting run over by a train reduces trespassing deaths by around 10 percent to even 75 percent, in some cases.

The success of this approach hinges on two important factors:

  1. Big behavioural problems do not need fancy solutions with large budgets and huge resources. Instead, a fundamentally different approach that is designed to play on the unconscious is needed.
  2. It is possible to change the behaviour of people without them being aware of the fact that their behaviour is being manipulated.

Building Toilets Vs. Using Toilets

With the Green India Initiative and the Swachh Bharat Mission (‘Clean India’ Mission), the Indian government has been trying to solve the problem of open defecation for a while now. Over the years, the government has tried to make cities cleaner and more hygienic but has failed to do so. So, why do people choose to defecate in the open instead of using toilets? There may be two answers to this question.

  1. The standard argument is that people do not have the infrastructure (toilets) and hence, defecate in the open. This would warrant a state-funded scheme which subsidises the construction and usage of toilets.
  2. An alternative view is employing the behavioural approach, which asks the question: “Will people use toilets if they are state-funded?” And if not, then why?
Reduced trespassing deaths

Trespassing deaths in Mumbai reduced considerably | Photo Courtesy: Rediff

Efosa Ojomo, a Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, notes that “In India, more than half of households lack toilets and open defecation in many regions is the norm”. This has deleterious effects on society such as, diarrhoea which kills millions of children annually. The Indian government, in response to this problem, is on a mission to build 60 million toilets by 2019. In fact, by 2015, the government had already built more than 10 million toilets. It is only now that officials are finally coming to terms with a difficult lesson: a mere construction of toilets is not enough, getting people to use them is the real problem.

Even India’s Minister for Rural Development, Sanitation and Drinking Water conceded that “For long, we assumed that if the toilets are built, people will automatically use it but we have to diligently monitor the use over a period of time and reward them with cash incentives to the village councils at every stage. Only then will it become a daily habit.”

Infrastructure-focused programs alone are inadequate in solving the problem of open defecation. In fact, the goal can be achieved only by generating demand for toilets through a consistent focus on creating behavioural changes.

The R.I.C.E Institute studied over 3,200 households in rural Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, and Haryana and found that people in rural north India very often do not use,  and definitely do not share their latrines.

Thus, it is clear that infrastructure-focused programs alone are inadequate in solving the problem of open defecation. In fact, the goal can be achieved only by generating demand for toilets through a consistent focus on creating behavioural changes. The Indian government should take note of these facts as it embarks on an ambitious path to provide a toilet to every household.

Setting Up Nudge Units

In response to such pressing policy problems, behavioural research units (or nudge units) are being set up around the world. A nudge unit increases the use of behavioural research in the domain of policy making. For example, the steps that were taken by Final Mile in the case of the Railway crossings.

In response to such pressing policy problems, behavioural research units (or nudge units) are being set up around the world. A nudge unit increases the use of behavioural research in the domain of policy making.

A nudge unit called the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST) was set up for this purpose in America. Its pilot studies have led to the following:

  • A 53 percent increase in workplace savings by military service members
  • More than 4,800 new enrolments and over $1 million dollars in additional savings in just one month
  • A 63 percent increase in the rate at which small family farmers obtained small-business loans
  • A doubling in the rate at which student defaulters contacted default-resolution representatives.

The United Kingdom has its own unit called The Behavioral Insights Team, which is responsible for redesigning public services on the basis of behavioural science literature. A similar research unit is being set by the World Bank to aid its efforts in fighting poverty.

NITI Aayog, the Central government’s think tank, has tied up with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to set up a nudge unit which will make government programs more effective.

These global trends are slowly finding their way into and influencing the Indian system. NITI Aayog, the Central government’s think tank, has tied up with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to set up a nudge unit. This will work towards bringing about behavioural changes to recommend policy corrections and, in turn, will make government programs more effective. These are, thus, exciting times for behavioural scientists in India.

Conclusion

As Barack Obama has put it, “A growing body of evidence demonstrates that behavioural science insights — research findings from fields such as behavioural economics and psychology about how people make decisions and act on them — can be used to design government policies to better serve the American people…”

Behavioural research will, thus, prove to be the next chapter in policy making. Understanding human behaviour and planning policies around it will pose an interesting challenge for economists and psychologists from around the world. However, a successful collaboration of all these streams has the potential to guide the world towards a better future.


Ronak Pol has completed his graduation from the University of London International Programme and is currently working as a Research Assistant at the Department of Economics,Mumbai University. He is also the founder and editor of EconPoliticsBlog.

Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt

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