Does calling a road an “expressway" or “freeway" contribute to more accidents on that road? Does a programme having the prefix “Pradhan Mantri", or a leader’s name, impact citizens’ behaviour towards the programme?

All social problems are complex. There are many factors that cause them. It is too optimistic to believe that one single bright solution will solve these problems overnight. It might be more practical to attack these problems from different angles. Some of the solutions will require much more effort and investment to implement. But there are a few low-hanging factors that can play a significant role in helping our attempts to solve many problems in our society. The name of the programme is one such factor.

Do names affect our attitude towards an individual? A study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan showed that, in the US, a “white-sounding" name prompted 50% more callbacks from potential employers compared to a “black-sounding" one. Economist David Figlio demonstrated that a child’s name influenced how he or she was treated by a teacher, and that differentiated treatment, in turn, translated to test scores.

Linguistics professor George Lakoff, analysing the term “war on terror", suggests that the name was carefully chosen to achieve certain ends. Wars can be waged against countries rather than a group of terrorists; war presidents can take extraordinary steps without censure; terror rather than “terrorism" in the phrase was used to inject fear. It drove the administration to present military aggression as the best and only solution to counter the problem of terrorism. After thousands of civilian deaths and trillions of dollars of expenditure, there are many who believe there is a better alternative to “war" as a way to counter the scourge of terrorism.

In our study of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), it was found that programmes that have tags like Pradhan Mantri, or names of national leaders, are seen as conduits through which citizens will receive goodies from the government. These are never seen as programmes where the citizens are expected to contribute.

What gives names this power to influence us non-consciously?

The world around us is complex and changing constantly. The human brain is inundated with information through all our sense organs. To deal with all this information, the brain first categorizes them, triggering a set of beliefs associated with the category and, therefore, actions to be taken.

When we observe a person or an object, we focus on a few details and use that information to assign that person or the object to a specific category in the large mental library of categories we have. The distinguished social psychologist Gordon Allport memorably noted: “The human mind must think with the aid of categories. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgement." Names are one of the key inputs the brain uses to categorize things around us.

Stored in our brains are several strong beliefs, or mental models, that influence many of our decision processes. Some mental models are products of evolution, some are cultural constructs, some are strongly held individual beliefs. Without shared mental models, it would be impossible in many cases for people to develop institutions, solve collective action problems, feel a sense of belonging and solidarity, or even understand one another. Thanks to decades of the socialist philosophy practised by our political leadership, one of the prevalent mental models is that governments are there to give freebies to their citizens. Names of programmes may activate this “government" mental model inadvertently.

The word “highway" definitely is a category that is known to any motorist. The context of the highway—multiple lanes, access-controlled environment where there are no distractions—surely activates a mental model of a risk-free road meant for speeding. The word “expressway" provides additional justification for the wrong behaviour that the mental model triggers.

The human brain is also an anticipating machine. The brain is constantly predicting what sensory inputs to expect and what action to take in future. Names are excellent shortcuts for the brain to anticipate effectively.

The names and tags we provide help the brain categorize better, activate the appropriate mental models and also help better anticipate a future encounter. All these processes, in turn, affect one’s behaviour towards that stimuli. It is not for nothing that the real estate lobby in Mumbai changed Lower Parel to Upper Worli.

This understanding of the functioning of the human brain can be used to make public policies more effective. The initiative to make India clean was envisaged under the name Swachh Bharat. It sounds more like the dream the country should move towards and could also trigger mental models of several promises the political leadership has made to the nation over the years. Instead, look at the programme name “Keep America Beautiful"for a similar initiative—exhortation for positive action is inbuilt in the programme name. Even better is the campaign “Leithers don’t litter" in Leith, Scotland. It not only focuses on the appropriate, immediate action for achieving cleanliness, but also appropriates the emotional connection the citizens have for the local town to good effect.

Just a name change won’t solve a complex problem. At least we can make sure that we don’t add fuel to the fire by giving it a wrong name.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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