Influencing behaviour by changing the surrounding

He cleared the tea cups from the drain, placed the dustbin in a strategic position and waited โ€” next 20 cups went straight into the bin, not the drain!


V and X are not the only ones trying to fix Bangalore’s filth problem. Unknown to them, there are several citizens out there, trying – in their own small way – to fix the mess on the streets outside their home or office. We are not talking here about NGOs or civil society organisations, of which Bangalore has plenty, but regular citizens.

There is P, a software engineer, working on weekends at defeating an ugly garbage dump right in front of a huge technology park near the Koramangala Forum Mall in which his MNC employer occupies two large buildings. And there is M, trying to make a difference to her street in the beautiful neighbourhood of Jayanagar. And there is S in Arekere, N in Jayamahal, J in Indiranagar, A in Koramangala, T in Malleshwaram, N in Banaswadi – and several other committed individuals battling on against ugliness in different parts of the city.

Bangalore used to be a beautiful city, and was called the Garden City. These were citizens who did not find any humour in the regular lament in the media – how we have moved from Garden City to Garbage City – and wanted to do something about it. These were all regular citizens with day jobs, they didn’t know each other, they were not part of any civic grouping or NGO, and were very focused on problem solving and had tried often and failed.  Not only is there a latent yearning in thousands of Bangaloreans for a clean city, there are several citizens out there willing to give the time and effort it takes to fix things. If only they knew what to do, or find other like-minded people to team up with. There is something brewing here, but neither V, X or any of these other citizens have a whiff of it yet. Things are soon going to change!

V and X are not total novices. They have spent the past few days conducting several ‘behavioural’ experiments on Bangalore’s streets. To try and understand The Ugly Indian – and why he behaves the way he does. All these experiments revolved around observing people’s behaviour in public spaces, and trying to ‘nudge’ them to change their behavior through quiet interventions using that rare commodity – silent observation, analysis and commonsense.

While observing the littering behaviour of tea-drinkers at a roadside stall, V and X noticed that they threw their plastic cups in the drain as a matter of habit. The drain had dozens of plastic cups thrown in there already so it seemed the normal thing to do. It was also convenient – as most people sat on the ledge of the drain to have their tea.

They noticed that the tea-stall owner did have two baskets that he placed as makeshift dustbins, but he kept them close to his shop where he could keep an eye on them – and not close to where his customers found it comfortable to have their chai. Typically, tea-stalls have really small shopfronts, so customers buy their tea and meander to a convenient point to stand around, chat, smoke a cigarette.

Often this point is quite a distance away from the tea-stall itself, and outside the ‘sphere of influence’ of the chaiwalla. They were hardly going to walk back all the way to the shop to locate a dustbin and use it – especially when they had an open drain right in front of them!  These were highly educated people, skilled software engineers working for one of the world’s leading technology firms out on a chai-and-cigarette break at a stall just outside their beautifully manicured campus. So one could argue that they should know better than to litter a drain.

So, V and X did a simple experiment – V cleared the drain of tea cups, and X, after befriending and taking the permission of the tea-stall owner, shifted one basket from the shopfront closer to where customers normally sat around drinking chai. He placed the basket dustbin strategically so the users could toss their cups into the basket without moving from their place.

And then they sat back and watched. Would this simple act nudge people to change their cup disposal behaviour?

Needless to say, the next 20 cups that were disposed went straight into the basket, and none went in the drain. It was as simple as that! Nobody had to be told to use the dustbin and not use the drain. No signs had to be put up, no new dustbins had to be installed, no awareness drive had to be conducted. It just worked! Somebody had just decided to take ownership for the outcome (that customers use the dustbin, and not the drain), and used his commonsense. And it worked.

A basic assumption that V and X had made got proved here – Give the ugly Indian a chance to exhibit good civic behaviour – and he will. This may seem like an incredibly simple and obvious ‘behavioural experiment’ but it sparked off something in X and V’s mind. That civic problems caused by bad behaviour can be ‘solved’ by quietly observing public behaviour, coming up with commonsense solutions and actually implementing them without any fuss. Another major learning was that any solution that works is the right solution.

In this case, the ends justify the means. However, if the solution works without demeaning the citizen (large signboards telling people not to litter), without creating an environment of fear (we will fine you if you do not comply!) and actually facilitates good behaviour (here’s a conveniently located dustbin, we trust you will use it), the results can be quite dramatic! This is the kind of solution that appealed to V and X – one which could create good civic behaviour by treating citizens with dignity.

Now imagine that this same ‘civic problem’ (of tea-drinkers littering the drains) had to be solved in a conference room, or on a TV show, or an internet debate. By ‘experts’ and others, who had not spent time observing the problem from close quarters. The discussion would have certainly covered the need to ban illegal tea-stalls, the inefficient government, the corruption in the garbage contracts, the hopeless lack of civic sense in Indians, the need to ban the use of plastic in tea-stalls, the poor civic infrastructure, the kind of signage required to tell people not to litter, the fines to apply on violators, how to shame the violators using gandhigiri, how these same Indians would behave differently if they went abroad, the impact on bees who drank the leftover tea in the cups and so on and so forth, without anyone really focusing on what the problem here was – poor positioning of the existing dustbins. This is not a grand solution that emerges from a big ‘meeting’ of experts, rather it is the result of some tinkering by someone on the field. Oftentimes, tinkering with existing systems and situations can create desirable results through dramatic behaviour changes – perhaps far more than radical system overhauls.

V and X then repeated this simple ‘dustbin positioning’ experiment in different tea-stalls across the city covering different classes of users (daily wage labourers, government employees, college students, bus passengers) and found that it always worked! Formal education, or lack of it, has nothing to do with civic sense.

V was inspired by books like Nudge which explored behavioural theory and suggested ways of design in public spaces to influence public behaviour. The trick lay in getting people to change their behaviour without their realising it! The ‘dustbin positioning experiment’ was one such inspired outcome that V had thought up and tested. One of many!

X had an analytical scientific approach to dealing with public problems, and was a big fan of the Broken Windows Theory – which suggested that if a street looked ugly or neglected, it attracted more anti-social behaviour, while a well-maintained and beautiful street discouraged vandalism and often earned respect from passers-by. While this theory had been proposed and tested in the US, X felt it certainly applied to India. The theory that people responded to the environment was extremely appealing – after all, people behave in a particular way inside a shopping mall (say, they don’t chew paan and spit on the walls), but the moment the leave the mall the same people behave differently and may actually spit, or urinate, on the street right outside. Could the ugly Indian’s civic behaviour be a function of the environment and the signals it gives him? If so, could changing the environment change behaviour?

V and X had stopped getting emotionally hassled when observing Indians display poor civic sense (like spitting, urinating or littering in public) – rather they had studied this behaviour critically and objectively to try to understand it, and the results were fascinating. Unbelievably, they found a logic and reason to explain why Indians behave the way they do in a public space, how they choose the exact place to litter, where (and at what angle) a paan-chewer spits his paan, how a man chooses a particular spot to urinate in public, why people don’t use dustbins even when provided.

In fact, they found that this behaviour is entirely predictable once one begins to understand the patterns. This knowledge is crucial while deciding how exactly to fix an ugly  spot – because no amount of ‘clean-up drives’ help if the basic behavior patterns are not changed. Clean a corner today, the filth could well return the next day. Sadly, this had been the fate of many clean-up drives conducted by well-intentioned citizens creating a sense of frustration about such social work.

V and X have been observing the actions of all stakeholders at the Times of India Spot on Church Street– both the culprits and the authorities, and have come up with some ideas to solve the problem.  They were going to apply all their learnings from their behavioural experiments on this ugly spot. But more on this later.

There is a very important job to do first – a crucial first step. A step that is often overlooked by those who try to make a difference. A step that probably makes all the difference between success and failure.

And that is what has brought them to the Spot at 730am on Sunday morning. It has been a day since their ‘hit’ on Friday night, and there are no unknowns left – they know exactly why the dump is created, who dumps here and the capacity of the system to deal with it.

Yet that information is not enough to actually go ahead and solve the problem of the open dump.
There is one piece of the puzzle left to tackl

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