The power of a nudge


  • According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 202 institutions around the world are applying behavioural insights to public policy. While most of them are found in the U.S., the U.K., Europe and Australia, some are found in developing countries in West Asia, Africa and Latin America. These institutions partner with behavioural and social scientists and combine psychology, sociology, anthropology, and politics to understand human behaviour to design effective public policies.

Why are governments including behavioural science in policymaking?

  • Over the last few years, it has been observed that even the most well-intentioned public policy programmes fail to be adopted by people who would benefit from them the most
  • On the contrary, people repeatedly make decisions that serve neither their own interests nor of others
  • In India, for instance, despite access to toilets, open defecation remains a huge challenge
  • Finding answers to this paradox is where behavioural frameworks become relevant.

Individuals make rational choices:

  • Until recently, it was assumed that individuals make rational choices, and the right incentives determine the “right choices”
  • But evidence suggests that people’s choices and decisions are not rational but determined by a far more complex set of psychological, cognitive and behavioural factors
  • Given their limited attention and computational capacity, people gravitate towards the status quo, which often results in a gap between the policy’s intent and action
  • Decisions also tend to be clouded because of societal perceptions and adherence to norms — for instance, girls are still married young.

There are a few aspects that could be considered while applying this science.:

  • Analysis of social norms
  1. Efforts in Bihar, to improve the quality of health-care service delivery by front-line workers takes into account popular ‘rituals’, like keeping a baby away from the ground in a cot (palna), or marking decorations around her hearth (chulah), for transmitting messages that are culturally acceptable
  • Behavioural science can be applied to large-scale programmes
  1. The very nature of the science being imbued in a social and cultural context enables it to generate effective and sustained results to public service programmes
  2. Research is going on in Tamil Nadu and Bihar to analyse core social motivators for open defecation and related behaviours with culturally appropriate social measures to convert toilet usage into a sustained habit
  • Interventions that are designed using this science can reduce the intent-to-action gap
  1. There are a plethora of tools like defaults, reminders, prompts, and incentives that can reduce poor adherence and increase compliance for sustained impact throughout the life of an intervention
  2. A good example of this is Kilkari, a mobile service by the government that delivers free, weekly and time-appropriate audio messages about pregnancy, childbirth and childcare directly to families’ mobile phones
  • Data collected and evaluated from a behavioural insights approach can be used for better management of programme performances
  1. Rigorous evaluation of behaviour is often missed while measuring programme performances, and often this missing data can help explain the limited impact of well-intended government programmes
  2. The impressive work done by the Ministry of Rural Development, on monitoring the implementation of national flagship schemes through DISHA dashboards, can be leveraged for evaluating behavioural change on the ground

Way Forward

  • Including behavioural insights in policymaking is helpful
  • By including ‘nudges’ — small, easy and timely suggestions to influence behaviour we can understand implementation outcomes better.


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