Changing Behaviour – one mime at a time

Has it ever happened to you that while driving you had to screech and halt to save a pedestrian from getting hit by your car. It just happened to me this morning. It wasn’t screeching and halting but yes, it was a sudden, unexpected break. Short, stout, in a green sweater and a blue mask there was a middle aged man right in front of my car’s bonnet staring at me in bewilderment. Jay walking is considered a safe behaviour by many standing in the crowd. Now imagine you had to halt at a star painted on the road? That’s what a Colombian mayor did years ago to prevent deaths caused during jaywalking. Ok, you may argue we do not even have zebra crossing markings on many roads in our cities. That is another debate. But, we still have people dying in road and rail accidents. 

This Mayor, Antanas Mockus whose work is now published as a case by Harvard, used different strategies to change behaviour of people of the city, including painting stars on spots where pedestrians had died in traffic accidents.A mathematician and philosopher, Mr. Mockus was rector of the National University in Bogotá, Colombia, before serving as mayor of that city for two terms, from 1995 to 2004.  

In an opinion piece, ‘the art of changing a city,’ he wrote “Bogotá’s traffic was chaotic and dangerous when I came to office. We decided the city needed a radical new approach to traffic safety. Among various strategies, we printed and distributed hundreds of thousands of “citizens’ cards,” which had a thumbs-up image on one side to flash at courteous drivers, and a thumbs-down on the other to express disapproval. Within a decade, traffic fatalities fell by more than half.” 

Another innovative idea was to use mimes to improve both traffic and citizens’ behavior. Initially 20 professional mimes shadowed pedestrians who didn’t follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. The program was so popular that another 400 people were trained as mimes. Traffic fatalities dropped by more than half in the same time period, from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600.  Mime artists idea was replicated in Peru Lima too to prevent road fatalities. 

In this week’s Habits for Thinking, we are circling back to a topic we have discussed earlier too – Behavioural Economics and Nudge. This is a two part article and will continue next week too. 

Behaviour economics uses psychology to understand decision making behind an economic outcome, such as buying of a product. The study refers to psychology, neuroscience, economics in understanding how people behave and act. The behaviour and subsequent decisions to act have an impact on people yet they continue to behave in an unsafe manner, like the man in the green sweater, who crossed the road more as a copycat behavior seeing others in front of him. 

Governments and policymakers recruit behavioural economists to change behaviour in the right direction. It has been done in many countries, including ours. “By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families and society,” wrote Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, which was published in 2008. Read more about Nudge and behavioural economics in my earlier article here. This is what the mathematician mayor of Bogota did. He used insights that influence behaviour and designed solutions that were not easy to miss, that were engaging to bring in change. 

Behavior Insights considers three factors that influence behavior: 

1.Individual factors : self image consciousness, fast and slow decision making or a person, biases, rewards and penalties, time factor etc. 

2.Social factors: How people think and act are many times influenced by people around them. Jumping a signal while driving because the one in front of you has jumped is an example or to litter in a public space like parking, roads etc is another example of copying behaviour. 

3.Environmental or design factors : Nudges and other design elements are chosen to bring a change in behaviour. These are externally designed like Mime artists on the streets to change behaviour or messages through voice on phone. 

While mimes were strategically placed to influence behaviour of pedestrians and car drivers, it worked on the self image of the individuals. Similarly, star painted spots became reminders as an environmental design factor to influence people’s behaviour. 

“The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task. Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”

Antanas Mockus, ex Mayor, Bogota.

When there was a water shortage, Mockus appeared on TV programs taking a shower and turning off the water as he soaped, asking his fellow citizens to do the same. In just two months people were using 14 percent less water, a savings that increased when people realized how much money they were also saving because of economic incentives approved by Mockus; water use is now 40 percent less than before the shortage.

Mockus writes in his note: When the city faced a critical water shortage, I made a public commitment: There would be no traditional rationing to manage the crisis, no cutting of supply. Instead, we set a goal of voluntary conservation of 12 to 20 percent; ultimately we achieved savings of 8 to 16 percent. To inform people of this policy, we replaced the busy signal on people’s telephones with a public message, either in my voice or that of the Colombian pop star Shakira, saying, “Thank you for saving water.”

This sounds like a familiar territory. We still have Amitabh Bachchan’s voice reminding Indians to wear a mask and to maintain social distancing this year. Now, there are messages that talk about the safety of vaccines.  The governments, both central and state, were quick to inform people about the pandemic. Even before the announcement of the lockdown, Mumbai city had billboards with a message of safety. 

In behavioral economics, you design a nudge to bring change in behaviour of people. Like some of the examples  that are mentioned above and some in the previous article. As a project leader, or a marketing head or the cultural captain of your company, you can design nudges that bring the right behavioural change in the organization or customers. You can create a form where someone has to opt-out instead of opt-in to get more signatures. UK government used this to make people adopt pension funds. They saw an increase in sign up of pension funds when the default setting of the form was opt-in. It was an effort for people to opt-out.  Marketers of most websites use this as a marketing tool. You may have noticed that when you register on a site, it has a tick mark about receiving promotional material, you are given the option to opt out of it. Similarly you can design a change in communication and keep it EAST – easy, attractive, social and timely to make it effective as mentioned in the previous article. 

The thought that I want to leave you with is what do you do when you want to change your own behaviour? The article will continue next week with more examples on behavioral economics and ways to bring those ideas in our own lives. 

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