A World of Nudges

The United States’ Government Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST) recently released its annual report for 2016, almost simultaneously with a memo released to provide further guidance to federal departments on implementation of behavioural insights in their ongoing work. This article seeks to document and assess some of the implications for the changing face of public policy in light of a wider application of ‘nudge’ theory in India.

Many governments around the world today have sought to incorporate behavioural science into policymaking: straight from conceptualizing the policies to testing them, to finally evaluating their effectiveness. As highlighted in the SBST Memo, government departments might focus their priorities on uptake into programs, which often fails due to informational barriers (e.g., not knowing which form to fill out to avail benefits), or extensive effort on part of the potential beneficiary (e.g., having to fill out too many forms to receive a benefit). Indeed, one lesson for India’s large-scale Mid-Day Meal scheme may come directly from the learnings of the National School Lunch Program (NLSP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamps Program). For example, by changing the packaging of food provided to child beneficiaries, there may be better uptake and improved enrolment and attendance at public schools.

There are also important lessons to be learnt in the realm of urban safety and for prevention of crimes against women. Given that public policy in India has recently turned to women’s safety as a priority area, there are many interventions that may act as nudges away from unsafe perception of public spaces. For example, the use of ‘looking eyes’ in laboratory experiments has been shown to induce less dishonest behaviour. Indeed, an intervention along these lines has been part of efforts by Safecity, a platform looking to highlight unsafe spaces for women via crowdfunded data on sexual harassment in public places. While there is no clear empirical evidence of whether such changes to the environment are useful, it is important to understand that behaviour change is integral to many policies.

Finally, there are recent studies that indicate complexity of choices (or even too many choices) can lead to inconsistent decisions for program beneficiaries. In marketing science, this is the well documented ‘choice overload’ problem. In the Indian context, one area in which choice overload might complicate decision-making is the Right To Education policy. Under this regulation, schools that wish to be recognized under the RTE need to comply with specific norms related to physical infrastructure (e.g., a stipulated square-footage, benches, desks, teaching aids), among others. Thus, school managers face the problem of adhering to a long list of school inputs, without knowing for certain if they will meet all the norms. Behavioural science, in this case, would predict that many schools would be disincentivized from providing education at low costs to students, and therefore withdraw from the education sector altogether. In the context of the struggling education outcomes in India, policies such as the RTE may need to be redesigned or reformulated to take into account the supply-side as well.

Incorporating choice architecture and other insights from behavioural science are steadily gaining ground across the world – for instance, Qatar recently became the first country in the Middle-East to start a nudge unit. India is also beginning to put in place a nudge unit at the Central Government under the NITI Aayog. If anything, this highlights the growing need for public policy to adopt an integrated approach to solving emerging economic and social problems. Indeed, marketing managers have since long employed nudges that are built on human psychological foibles, and it is perhaps about time that we harnessed the power of behavioural science to improve human development for the greater good.

Anirudh Tagat