Going beyond awareness building

Learning from cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics helps us understand the many factors that cause the awareness-action gap


We are all aware of the dangers of trespassing on railway tracks. But many a time, this awareness does not translate into an appropriate action. Our brains are able to judge the speed of a car while crossing a road. Photo: AFP
We are all aware of the dangers of trespassing on railway tracks. But many a time, this awareness does not translate into an appropriate action. Our brains are able to judge the speed of a car while crossing a road. Photo: AFP

Why do 85% of those who join a gym drop out in six months’ time? Why does a tuberculosis (TB) patient fail to take his prescribed medication for a potentially life-threatening disease on a daily basis?

That awareness about the benefits of an action will induce that action and knowledge about the negative consequences of an action will deter that action is a core belief of traditional behaviour change strategies. The solutions to many social problems have their roots in awareness.

For instance, many young mothers in our rural areas are ignorant of the correct behaviours they need to adopt when they are pregnant, during their delivery, and for newborn care. In the case of the Zika virus epidemic, even the educated in our country might not know what is to be done to prevent it from spreading. Awareness-building campaigns still have a role to play in managing human behaviour.

But does a person who paid gym membership but is not frequenting the gym, lack awareness of the benefits of such a routine? Is a motorist driving at 120km per hour on a highway unfamiliar with the consequences of his unsafe behaviour on other motorists, pedestrians and even himself? Is it possible that a TB patient who has had several face-to-face meetings with the health worker is really not aware of the consequences of not completing the full course of his medication?

In many cases, we are aware of the benefits of a certain action but we do not make the necessary shift in behaviour. We are aware of the consequences of an action, but still do not manage to keep away from it.

In such cases, the real problem is not a lack of awareness, but that of awareness not translating into behaviour. An awareness-action gap!

In the gospel according to Homo Economicus, the rational economic man, an awareness-action gap cannot even exist. How can someone who is aware of the utility of an action not want to maximize it? But the truth is that in issues ranging from climate change to medical adherence to sanitation to brand-building to the practice of various organizational values, there is a significant gap between the number of people who are aware of those issues and those who change their behaviour accordingly. Given that an awareness-action gap exists, the interesting question is: What prevents awareness of an issue from translating into appropriate action?

In some cases, it’s because we are in a very different world than the one we evolved in. We are all aware of the dangers of trespassing on railway tracks. But many a time, this awareness does not translate into an appropriate action. Our brains are able to judge the speed of a car while crossing a road. But the same brains let us down while crossing a railway track because our brains are not capable of accurately estimating the speed of a fast-moving large object, such as a train, because evolutionarily, we haven’t encountered massive objects that move this fast!

This deficiency causes people to misjudge the speed of an approaching train, giving people a sense of false confidence—a flaw that results in the deaths of thousands of trespassers on railway tracks.

In other cases, it may be because of skewed risk perceptions. When a novice attempts a risky action, he is very conscious of the risks involved. As he masters this risky action, the awareness of risk goes up, but something else too happens in his brain. The “feeling of risk” associated with the activity decreases slowly but surely.

For very experienced professionals, the feeling of risk might diminish completely and maybe substituted by a feeling of overconfidence. In many organizations, especially in the domain of safety, experienced employees are very often the source of risky actions stemming from their skewed risk perceptions.

Another class of awareness-action gap is influenced by social norms—the behaviour of those around you. Most people wouldn’t steal or vandalize or shower abuses on another as an individual. But put them in an emotionally charged social setting and you get rioters and rabid football hooligans. This is equally valid in an organizational context—from Enron to Satyam to the latest Wells Fargo fraud. An individual looks around to see what others around him are doing, and he follows suit. Humans are social animals—social norms will almost always trump individual beliefs and awareness.

There is a common belief that awareness-building is a panacaea to solve all human behaviour-related issues. The important question policymakers and corporate strategists should ask themselves is whether the problems we are facing today in society and business really emanate from lack of awareness or if they exist despite high levels of awareness. If it’s the latter, more investment to increase awareness is not the solution.

Learning from cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics helps us understand the many factors that cause the awareness-action gap. This is a critical first-step in solving that behavioural problem. While awareness can be built easily by developing mass media campaigns, bridging the awareness-action gap needs far more effort. Therein also lies the new paradigm of human behaviour management.

Biju Dominic is chief executive officer, Final Mile Consulting, a behavioural architecture firm.

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