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World Toilet Day: Toilets And Behaviour Change - Much More Than Nudging

A program of behaviour change that ends open defecation among those who have the access and the choice to use a toilet will lessen monumental harm to many.

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Celebrated Harvard Law professor, and co-author of the book, Nudge, Cass Sunstein, recently visited India as a guest of the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change in New Delhi, sparking a renewed interest from the Indian government to start a Behavioural Insights Unit. India remains the latest and the largest adopter of the behavioural approach, among several governments globally.

Sunstein had heaped high praise on Prime Minister Modi's flagship behaviour-change program in the area of sanitation, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (SBA) for the incredibly huge challenge of open defecation in India. Prime Minister Modi's efforts were brought to the forefront of international policy challenges at the Behavioural Exchange in London to address the hazard of open defecation in India. 

Formal institutions usually work by imposing expected costs on proscribed behaviour. The state imposes costs, and the simple calculus of costs and benefits is likely to keep people on the desired path. The costs act as externally imposed disincentives that the state imposes through its legal apparatus. It is essential to draw a conceptual distinction between the creation and deployment of institutions from the use of "nudging". Nudging, involves the use of carefully designed conditions that steer people in the desired direction without coercion, Sunstein argues. Nudging involves reconciling two contending ends – liberty and autonomy on the one hand, and paternalism on the other – hence the usage of the philosophical term "libertarian paternalism" to describe nudging.

Applied to the challenge of open defecation in this country, nudging might include addressing behavioural barriers to the use of toilets and creating conditions that favor greater use. Rather than using the state apparatus to punish the open defecators, nudging might involve helping people overcome these barriers. For instance, IDinsight found some positive results from nudges in overcoming the convenience and experience barriers that people feel using toilets. Painting the latrines, providing entertainment inside the cabin, and giving away cleaning kits are some of the nudges they studied.

Another point to note in understanding the role of informal institutions is the difference between externally enforced norms and internalized norms.A deliberate and utilitarian estimation of expected costs weighed against expected gains often invokes a "Systems 2" approach to decision making. This deliberation belongs to the Chicago School, Gary Becker style of contemplation of the economics of crime or bad behaviour. But humans don't often conform to this model of behaviour advanced by the neo-classical school of law and economics.

One path we must explore is developing and leveraging internal norms, which are Systems 1, moral imperatives, with low response times. It is the self that imposes psychic costs and not external agents. So, are there ways of generating and internalizing a norm that open defecation is a morally reprehensible thing, when the choice to use toilets or not exists? Many opine that education is the panacea for such problems. The common belief is that the poor are uneducated and ill-informed, so they don't invest in toilets and defecate in the open. But this is not true in the world where we have little patience for long-term processes. All of us are urgent pragmatists.

How many of us who do have formal education, have not succumbed to public urination or open defecation while traveling on Indian roads? The reasons are not lack of education or non-availability of toilets either. Our morality did not have enough substance to allow us to bear the cost of the smelly toilet in the bus stand. Most of us did not even stop to think of how we might cause harm to others by going in the open. We were merely experiencing the urgent call of nature, and our brains were overwhelmed by finding a spot private enough to provide anonymity.

We must have cleaner toilets and also the gap between moral choice and structural possibilities must be reduced by making us more considerate of others. At the same time, we cannot question the morality of people without structural opportunities. 

One way to develop new internalized norms lies in the realm of tweaking human psychology. We can first change practice by using a mix of formal and informal institutions, and then allow internal norms to evolve ex-post. A wonderful psychology experiment illustrates our innate capacity to resolve cognitive dissonance and change our beliefs after changes in practice. 

A group of subjects were randomly divided into two smaller groups and asked to perform an unpleasant task. One group was not paid and the other was paid. The group not paid evaluated the task as more pleasant than those who were paid. The paid group had an economic justification for performing the tedious activity. Behaviour can change beliefs, and when beliefs change, they make behaviour more sustainable. It is conceivable that people who have a choice about toilet usage, can change their beliefs and intentions about open defecation after they have been subjected to the initial unpleasantness of being prevented from defecating out in the open - even after experiencing a formal system of laws that punish private behaviours that jeopardize public health. This is the reason it is important to conceive of behaviour change more broadly than just through nudging. 

It is hopeful news that PM Modi's government is framing policy challenges as behaviour-change problems, so that desirable policy outcomes can become more sustainable. A program of behaviour change that ends open defecation among those who have the access and the choice to use a toilet will lessen monumental harm to many.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Dr Pavan Mamidi

The author is Director, Center for Social and Behavior Change, Associate Professor, IIM-Ahmedabad and Affiliated Professor, Harvard Law School

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