Christian Bason of MindLab, Denmark, recently wrote about a new method of bringing about desired behavior change in social development programs, using the principles of ‘nudge’ and combining them with design. The Nudge principle was articulated by professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (Chicago professors of economics and law respectively), in their best-selling book of the same title. They write,
A nudge …is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates.
In design and innovation processes, context is everything. So, when designing public and social sector development programs, it is essential that any endeavor be firmly rooted in the local context. However, most development programs have an element of some desired behavior or social change embedded within them, whether they be programs of health, sanitation, education, gender equality, or any other focus subject. This means that, besides designing an effective system, you also have to design a means to convince people to overcome their long-standing social habits and actually adopt that system. And that is where, according to Bason, the principles of nudge and design can make a huge difference,
…since we in the public sector are preoccupied with getting people to do more of what we want them to do and less of what we don’t want. More exercise, less smoking, more salad, less fat, more subscriptions to organ donation, fewer people politely declining, quicker payments of arrears, fewer debtors, etc.
He gives the example of the Danish tax authority, which simply redesigned the placement of a certain button (asking taxpayers to click on it to unsubscribe from paper bills and thus save both money and paper) on the tax form to yield a considerable response from taxpayers. Similarly, in England, the tax authority changed their messaging to debtors, wherein they sent messages such as “More than 90 per cent of citizens in your district have already paid their taxes,” which resulted in far more debtors making payments than with previous messaging strategies that either threatened or pleaded for them to pay their debts. In fact, the success of this venture led to the setting up of a Behavioural Insights Unit that explores ways of using psychological insights to better implement government policies.
What is most compelling about all the examples from Bason’s articles, as well as the case studies that Thaler and Sunstein use in their book, is that major social change can be garnered through simple changes in messaging, that cost little or nothing. What is special about nudging is that people are given the freedom to choose, with no financial payoff or penalty involved. Bason calls this way of solving problems the ‘design attitude’:
This refers to an approach to the world which contends that the world can be improved, that one needs to understand how people behave if one wants to change it, and that one should always seek to develop concrete, tangible solutions. Design attitude combines analytical reasoning with sympathetic insight, empathy and an understanding of what actually delivers change.
In India, there is massive potential for this combination of design and nudging to result in rapid social change. As Saugato Datta of LiveMint wrote in an article about nudging,
The scope for applying this idea to government policy in India is endless. Just imagine if tax authorities, municipalities, etc. around the country actually woke up to the idea that cleverly designed messaging could help them actually collect what they are owed, and could do so with little extra effort and very little extra cost.
Of course, its utility doesn’t end at governments collecting taxes, and rather this very same principle can be used for various other kinds of social programs as well, nudging people to adopt better health and sanitation practices, encouraging them to seek education, and much much more. It will be interesting to see more examples of this resource-efficient, highly empathetic approach at work, specifically in developmental contexts in emerging economies.