Our choices are really decisions others have made

Our choices are really decisions others have made
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First Published: Thu, Dec 08 2011. 07 20 PM IST

Updated: Fri, Dec 16 2011. 01 01 PM IST
How does change happen? Does it creep upon on us imperceptibly like a vine growing? Or does it blow in suddenly like a hailstorm with no warning? More importantly, what causes change, particularly lasting change?
In 1994, the plague broke out in Surat. Once government got beyond denial and disbelief, it literally cleaned up its act—at least the municipality did.
When the plague was first reported, most of the rest of India acted shocked. Did this stuff not go out in the middle ages? How could this happen in 20th century India? A few forward-thinking towns and cities even tried to explore what they could do to avoid the fate that had struck Surat. Once the outbreak was brought under control in Surat, the changes effected then were heralded as an example for all municipalities in India and the municipal commissioner toasted as an effective leader, at least in the media. Yet did these changes in Surat have an impact on what happens in other cities?
It had little lasting impact on my current hometown, Bangalore. Garbage lies strewn everywhere. Overflowing garbage trucks leave a trail of trash as they wind their way around the town. I suspect Chennai or any other growing city in India is not any different from Bangalore in this regard. So why did the lessons of Surat not stick?
One possible explanation is that cities, government and garbage are complex problems—too many constituents with conflicting agendas. Other explanations range from the activist “we have too many other big problems that need to be addressed” to the somewhat defeatist “we are like that only”. If so, is change easier for simpler problems or at least those with fewer constituents?
I can think of one close to home— losing weight. Each year thousands of us make resolutions to lead a healthier lifestyle. Losing weight is one positive indicator of such a lifestyle, especially for those of us whose waists seem to be growing in some non-linear fashion with our age. Unlike the garbage disposal problem, the weight-losing problem has usually a small number of constituents—I’d argue as few as one.
Losing weight is straightforward—at least in theory. Eat less, exercise more. Yet as with the garbage problem, change in the right direction seems hard to come by, as attested by the global multi-billion dollar weight loss industry. What about companies? Given a clear economic purpose and an organizational hierarchy, shouldn’t change be easy to achieve? The breadth of literature on effecting change in corporate environments—larger than individuals but not always as large as nations—demonstrates that this is still a challenge for most businesses, too.
Yet lasting change does happen— even in India. Whether queuing up for those tiresome security checks at our airports or eschewing plastic bags for grocery shopping, I am sure each of us can cite several examples.
In their book Nudge, Richard Thaler, a behavioural scientist and economist, and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar, examine how people make choices and more importantly how those choices can be influenced. Their premise is that by improving the decisions we make, we can bring about lasting change—hopefully for the better. Thaler and Sunstein assert with a dazzling array of everyday examples how the decisions we make are strongly influenced by how our choices are presented. They argue that the choice architect (a term they’ve coined for the person who decides the options presented) for the high-school cafeteria, office buildings, roads and cities can nudge us to making better decisions. So indeed we can make people litter less and drive carefully by nudging them.
To make their case of how seemingly insignificant details can influence people’s behaviour in a huge manner, they cite the example of the men’s rooms at Schipol Airport. By etching the image of a small housefly in the urinals, the aim of the urinal users improved, leading to much less of a mess and cleaner bathrooms. Now all we need is to find the metaphorical housefly for these other problems and we will be on our way to creating lasting change!
K. Srikrishna is an entrepreneur and angel investor. He writes about issues that business leaders and managers face and books that could help.
Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Dec 08 2011. 07 20 PM IST