CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Man is a social animal. The workings of his mind influence the society around him and vice-versa. Is it any wonder then that over-handed solutions often don’t work in the backdrop of a complex culture? Why was there so much mistrust of health workers during the Ebola crisis? Why is it so hard to convince people to get vaccinated and to change gender norms? Such questions become critical to circumvent the obstacles to the success of development projects.
With grassroots approaches now becoming almost as mainstream as government projects, people are starting to appreciate the importance of involving the community in attaining goals and understanding the motivations of their target population. We have seen this in the success of microfinance cooperatives. Since these cooperatives are based on residents of a community pooling their resources together, there is a sense of ownership and responsibility that makes cooperatives uniquely successful. This is social thinking in action.
The World Bank recently released a very interesting report on “Mind, Society and Behavior” that talks about how contextual cues and social networks and norms play a role in the decision-making process. The report describes how three ways of thinking—socially, motivated by peers, automatically in an effortless, intuitive manner and conceptually, with pre-conceived perceptions and classifications—can all be incorporated into effective solutions.
Reducing the complexity of the way information is presented and making solutions convenient can help people automatically arrive at a conclusive decision. For instance, when chlorine dispensers were provided free of charge locally and activists talked with residents face-to-face about its merits, chlorination levels in households increased. The applicability of this in any public awareness program is clear.
Social psychology is filled with instances of conceptual thinking where people, when made aware of their place in society, tend to perform accordingly. A study in India shows that revealing young boys’ low-caste status prior to performance tests significantly reduced their achievement vis-à-vis their high-caste counterparts. In India, where caste can be seen as a weakness, this can result in a never-ending cycle of poor economic progress and low social standing.
Such thinking can also extend to other concepts like the need for large families and to the stigma against HIV or Ebola patients. Although many approaches are needed to change stereotypes and societal notions, social media and broadcasting is an effective method. In regions of high fertility, soap operas showing small families reduced fertility rates as people started to engage with the characters in the show.
In an interview with Freakanomics Radio, Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank group, talks about a very successful campaign that we are all familiar with today that employed exactly this approach. In 1988, Harvard School of Public Health launched the designated driver campaign and enlisted the support of Hollywood. What followed was a series of popular movies and TV shows which incorporated a designated driver. Today, the concept is well known and completely legitimate. Popular media had effectively made it cool to have a designated driver and made it alright to refrain from drinking to be that driver.
Is it possible to find a similar solution so HIV patients are not encumbered by social stigma when seeking treatment? Is it possible to inspire and motivate a change in gender roles? Is it possible to find a multi-pronged approach to dealing with public health and security crisis that take into account cultural beliefs? Many groups are trying to find successful approaches to these problems. According to the World Bank report, “drawing on insights from modern behavioral and social sciences can generate new kinds of interventions that can be highly cost effective.” This new report might be the sign for another kind of development, one that works with the people as well as for the people.
– Mithila Rajagopal