Is Our Behaviour The Answer To Our Problems?

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As a kid, I loved observing people, their actions and behaviours, but could never really understand the trigger that made them respond in the way they did. This is why the works on cognitive and behaviour understanding had my mind captivated every time.

Fast forward to 2018, I end up working with an impact investing firm where I am part of an accelerator program which involves mentoring eight Edtech companies with their mobile applications; all in the space of providing learning and employability skills to its users. A major aspect of the program is to use the applications of behavioural sciences and to devise specific product changes and strategies which helps the cohort to nudge their user's behaviour; ultimately through which they achieve increased user retention and enhanced user engagement for their respective applications. And while working in this program, I have pondered whether there's more to these behaviours and how can its scope to other areas of work be expanded. At this point, I would like to quote René Descartes, not just because his works have helped me through my post-grad philosophy lessons, but given the context of this subject, he makes a powerful point by saying,

“To know what people really think, pay regard to what they do, rather than what they say”

I am not here trying to boast about the work that I have been doing or to narrate my juvenile nostalgias, but to raise the rather crucial idea of using behavioural insights which can prove to be a beneficial source for studying a given problem and building solutions around it. To better understand the implications associated with using behavioural sciences and the nudges that it is capable of offering, let us take an example of behavioural insights from accidents at railway crossings conducted by behavioural expert firm ‘Final Mile’. Mumbai, a city which often terms the railways as its lifeline, experiences an estimated eight deaths per day while people cross the railway tracks. Behavioural insights studied by Final Mile showed that many people underestimate the speed of large objects. The other insight was that people are often more attentive when there is a gap/silence that breaks up a monotonous tone (such as a train horn). These insights helped them to come up with three simple changes which were:

  1. Painting alternate sets of railway ties in fluorescent yellow, which helped people judge speed better.

    Rreplacing warning stick figures with a three-part figure of a real person showing the horror of impending death helped make the threat clearer, visually.

  2. Two rapid blasts of horns replaced the single, long whistle of danger that people found easier to respond to.

By nudging such simple, cognitive and often, unconscious behaviour, the team found a decline in trespassing deaths of up to 10-75 per cent in test locations (Debleena Majumdar, ET Prime).

This example enables us to grasp the concept of nudges and provides us with an understanding of people’s behaviours. Besides, this also provides finding a probable pattern for a problem that can help us at the very least adapt better, if not completely mitigate them. But, to imagine that a small experiment like this could bring out such prudent changes, it is hard not to bring out a similar analogy for sectors that have been deprived of their true potential. Once such sector clearly befitting this issue is that of ‘Education’.

There is hardly any debate on the importance of Education and on the purpose which it serves by enabling the individual with the necessary intellect and skills required to function in society. It is utterly unfortunate that the education system in India is still largely mingled with several plagues. It has been over a decade since the enactment of the Right to Education Act (2006). The agenda behind the enactment of this act was obviously noble and empowering. However, this late realization of mandating education for all seems to have done little good for the masses. The state of good and quality education is very limited in the country. There is an evidently known disparity that exists in education as the scarce resource of a good education is only available to the few elites of society.

Raising the effectiveness of in-class teaching is one of the most critical factors which can contribute to improving the learning outcome levels. However, this can be done by applying the applications of behavioural sciences in the present teaching curriculum. The approach could also be used in online training programs for students as well as teachers.

Using behavioural sciences along with the traditional teaching and training methods could help in identifying existing loopholes in the prevailing scheme of things. The debate here is not to change the existing behaviour of the people. We do not possess control over that. What we could definitely do is, identify these behaviours and emerge with useful insights. That will eventually help us draw a system or a methodology through which people can easily manoeuvre and adjust to these processes; ultimately, contributing positively towards the end goal as a whole.