Designing a new social norm

July 14, 2015

Varun Gauri, Senior Economist Mint

Development policy is due for a redesign based on a more realistic understanding of how human beings behave

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a grand, ambitious experiment in behaviour change. Achieving a Clean India by 2019 will require, in addition to building latrines and sanitation systems, motivating people to use them. But how do you change lifelong habits? When sufficient individuals use latrines, others also start to do so, but what is the tipping point, and how do we reach it? How do you design and build a new social norm?

A common approach to improving sanitation is to build subsidized toilets and give people a standard health message. But a more psychologically and socially sophisticated approach works with community members to map areas of open defecation. A facilitator places a sample of faeces on the floor next to a piece of food, such as a bowl of rice or a banana. Individuals already know that flies moved between faeces and food. But paying attention to that fact creates a lasting image that motivates new behaviour. In addition, some facilitators help communities organize a public declaration to stop open defecation. Through this, new health norms become a part of social identity and community members express disapproval for those who continue open defecation. A randomized impact evaluation in Madhya Pradesh showed that villages using a more psychologically sophisticated approach lowered open defecation rates substantially, compared to those who didn’t.

The most common approach to policymaking assumes that individuals make decisions analytically, on the basis of self-interested preferences, and use all available information in unbiased ways. In fact, as the World Bank’s World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior describes, people think intuitively, they follow social norms and have social identities, and they use culturally-rooted mental models. Development policy is due for a redesign based on a more realistic understanding of how human beings think, decide and behave. Understanding insights from recent work in the social and behavioural sciences can make development interventions more effective, and help us tackle challenges. Consider these further examples.

After individuals were exposed to women leaders through reserved seats in gram panchayats in West Bengal, villagers viewed female leaders more favourably, compared to villages without reservations for women leaders. Girls in those villages also increased their aspirations, the gender gap in adolescent education was erased, and girls spent less time on household chores. This example points to the importance of role models in lifting aspirations. Leadership, as well entertainment education, can inspire people to take charge of their own lives.

In Rajasthan, in the context of an initiative to supply reliable immunization providers, some randomly chosen households received small non-financial incentives—lentils and thalis—to immunize their children. Among children 1-3, rates of full immunization were 39% with the non-financial incentives, compared to 18% with only the reliable immunization providers. The non-financial incentives had little impact on the first two vaccine shots, but they functioned as a reminder to help parents fulfil their intentions and complete the vaccine schedule. More generally, reminders of all types can be powerful, and can motivate individuals to save more, make healthier choices, enrol in schools, conserve energy, and even to be more honest.

Female sex workers often face considerable stigma and exclusion. A programme in Kolkata built self-esteem and a sense of personal agency through weekly social discussions. After just eight weeks, women who participated in the programme were more likely to choose a future-oriented savings product and to have visited a doctor, even though the training programme included no specific mention of health issues. Similarly, one study found that microfinance clients who meet weekly rather than monthly with their repayment groups had much more informal social contact with others in the group even two years after the loan cycle ended, and were three times less likely to default on their second loans. Social motivation is a powerful lever that can be used in policy design more often.

Engineers, private firms, and marketers of all stripes have long paid attention to how people actually make decisions, to the role that the context and social preferences play in our decision-making, and to the use of mental shortcuts and mental models to filter and interpret information. The development community is beginning to do the same. We believe that a more realistic understanding of decision-making can inspire and guide researchers and practitioners who aim to tackle some of the most pressing development challenges.

Varun Gauri is senior economist, World Bank, and co-director of World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior. 

This opinion piece was originally published in Mint on 13 July 2015.