There is no dearth of media coverage of inappropriate behaviour on the part of people in respect to Covid-19. But that has not stopped our blatant disregard for such norms as maintaining social distancing or wearing masks. This collective disregard for SOPs and guidelines is the root cause of the disaster. Alas, such caveats appear to have no impact on public conduct. Behavioural economics, a relatively new stream in economics, may have some explanations to offer to resolve the conundrum.
We have been discussing Covid-appropriate behaviour for almost a year. Large gatherings are said to be one of the major contributors of the second wave. In March 2020, the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz mosque was termed as a superspreader event. Over four thousand confirmed cases and 27 deaths were linked to the gathering. The country did not learn anything from that disaster. The Kumbh Mela took place one year later. Although the Centre and the Uttarakhand government laid down SOPs on this occasion, these remained largely on paper. There are numerous anecdotal evidences of people contracting the virus after visiting the Kumbh Mela. Al Jazeera reported dozens of cases across India being traced back to the celebration. Last but not the least, that Great Indian political festival — elections — needs to be mentioned in this context. The question is why do people not learn from past events? Behavioural economics offers an answer in this respect: the answer is that the present behaviour of people is what they have learnt from the past.
Influencing people’s behaviour by publicizing information — known as ‘social nudge’ — is one way of motivating people towards a desired change in behaviour. The other option relies on command and control policies, such as rules and laws. Lockdown is an example of this kind of intervention. Since it requires monitoring for implementation, it may become cost ineffective in a large and populous country like India. The economic losses incurred due to lockdowns make command and control inefficient. Social nudges, on the other hand, are cost effective as changes may take place more organically. But a social nudge can become counterproductive if the information content is not designed appropriately.
In their book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein delineate the different types of social nudges for behaviour change. One way of nudging people would be to tell them about correct behaviour. However, people tend to follow others. In Norms in the Wild, Cristina Bicchieri, an Italian-American philosopher, termed people’s tendency to watch others’ behaviour as ‘empirical expectation’, which motivates their behaviour in the same direction. Thus, when people flout Covid-19 SOPs and the information is publicized widely, it sets empirical expectations that others tend to follow.
Thaler and Sunstein argue that social nudges are effective only when the information is positive or conforms to appropriate behaviour. If you want to make people tax compliant, policymakers should spread the information that a large number of people pay their taxes. Or, say, if you want to nudge people to give up addiction, then disseminate how many have left the harmful habit. Robert B. Cialdini, an American professor of psychology and marketing, conducted an experiment on the behaviour of visitors to parks in respect to widespread littering. He found that sending the message, “A lot of people are doing this wrong” also meant “A lot of people are doing this”. This may encourage bad habits instead of nudging public behaviour towards a desired outcome.
Therefore, there is a possibility that widely publicized news and visuals of the flouting of Covid-19 SOPs, originally meant to raise alarm and warn people, have actually encouraged people to disobey these protocols since they saw others doing the same. The media should produce greater evidence of people adhering to Covid-19 norms. This may be more effective in changing public behaviour. A carefully-crafted social nudge can contain the second wave of the pandemic and even nip the third wave in the bud.
Indranil De is Associate Professor, Institute of Rural Management, Anand