Behavioural Design

I happened to read a really interesting paper on Behavioural Design and the impact it can have on development policies. In technology, decoding user behaviour is one of the most important components of the design process, however these tenets of product management are yet to be adopted effectively outside the tech industry. The implications of assessing user behaviour could be huge—especially to improve the impact of several programs aimed at reducing poverty and disease.

Behavioural design process
Taken from Behavioural Design – A New Approach to Development Policy

I don’t want to regurgitate the entire paper, but there are many aspects of it that I found interesting and relevant, especially in the Indian context that I am familiar with. As privileged members of society who design these policies and models, we fail to recognize that the same problems that plague us also plague those who have less than us. I think our tendency to think “they don’t have enough food to eat so clearly that’s the only thing they think about” is wrong.

Lack of self-control, forgetfulness, procrastination, and laziness

are not just first-world problems!

Farmers are given access to fertilizers, but studies indicate that crop growth remains unaffected. We immediately think of reasons why this could be – perhaps the farmers are uneducated, perhaps the fertilizer needs to be subsidized further… but what if farmers had every intention of using the fertilizer, but it was just too much work? The example cited in the paper is spot-on. How many of us decide to go the gym  but find it difficult to go despite knowing the many health benefits of working out? How many of us know that junk food is terrible for our bodies, but we still stuff our faces with KFC every chance we get?

Behavioral economics leads us to a very different question. Our intentions do not always translate into actions. It is not merely about marketing or better tools of persuasion (sometimes it is that too). It is a deeper perspective on what makes people behave.

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book “Thinking Fast and Slow” and it really brings home the fact that exerting self-control depletes physical energy (leading to a faster pulse and decreased skin conductance) and that we only have a finite amount of self-control (also known as ego depletion).

Baumeister’s group has repeatedly found that an effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion.

So really, an interesting solution for the ineffective use of fertilizers would be to remind the farmers each day by virtue of an SMS. Reminders often set off a “mental guilt” alarm and push us to do the things we need to do, especially when the push comes from a third party. We have apps to remind us when to go the gym, we make ourselves more accountable by making a public commitment on social media and we have “gym-buddies” who motivate us to train – there’s no reason why the same levers that control us can’t be used to push everyone else.

This is just one aspect of behavioural design that I found to be fascinating. The paper discusses several others, some of which include:

  • People are much more responsive to being informed of what they lose by not doing something than they are to being told how much it benefits them.
  • Comparing a person to his peers, neighbours, friends, etc. is an extremely effective way to change behaviour.

My key takeaway from this though is that we cannot underestimate the importance of human behaviour while designing anything that is to be used by humans, be it technology or development programs.

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