The spanking new Kochi Metro witnessed a controversial event recently. It happened when leaders and workers of a political party entered one of the Metro stations and boarded a train for a “protest ride", many of them without a valid ticket. All this, of course, created quite a bit of commotion and disrupted the life of Metro staff and passengers in the station and in the train. 

This is a scene that has played out in India many a times. But what followed was a huge surprise. As soon as television news channels flashed the news of this unruly behaviour, one of the senior most leaders of the political party addressed reporters and apologized for the unruly behaviour of his party workers.

Why did the senior politician apologize for a behaviour that happened in the newly inaugurated Kochi Metro? Did the apology arise from an improved civic sense of our political leaders, or did it emanate from the ability of our Metros to inculcate good behaviour even in our political leaders, not to mention ordinary citizens? 

That Indians behave with civic sense only when in countries like Singapore is an oft repeated refrain. But few have noticed that there are public places in India, where all Indians, irrespective of their age and income, behave in the most desirable way. We have an impeccable civic behaviour when we step into our Metro stations. Whether in Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai or Kochi Metro, we do not litter, we do not spit paan residue, and we do wait patiently in queues. 

Why do we behave differently in a Metro? Can this behaviour be replicated to other public places too? Can our behaviours in our Metro stations be a harbinger of change across the whole country? 

Human behaviour experts have always studied the impact of physical surroundings on human behaviour. They have established that physical locations are some of the most powerful cues to behaviours. As Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, puts it, “ Even though people think they’re making choices, many of our repeated behaviours are cued by everyday environments". Humans are like chameleons who have the ability to change their colours to suit the surroundings. We speak softly in libraries, we are boisterous in stadiums.

As soon as an individual enters an environment, she derives a certain understanding and a meaning about that surrounding. It is this meaning that influences how we act in that situation. Who we are, what we believe in, what we do, are all greatly influenced by where we are.

What are the factors that contribute to providing a meaning to our Metro stations that all of us have a transformed behaviours when we step into a Metro station? 

Most of our Metro stations are at a physical level that is different from the rest of the surroundings. Metros are either elevated or they are underground. A Metro station invokes a ritual of stepping out of the ordinary world into a “sacred" space. The same level difference (and the accompanying effort) adds to a feeling of exclusivity and spirituality to our places of worship too. 

Think of your first Metro ride or your first plane ride or your first visit to a glitzy mall. The gleaming technological marvels that are our Metros, our airports, our high-end malls generate an emotion of awe and wonder. This is a curious emotion—one that may not seem like it has an evolutionary underpinning.

Wonder is an emotion that’s triggered when current mental models are not sufficient to understand or comprehend a situation—something that requires adjustment and new learning. Awe also has a social side—psychologist Paul K. Piff and Dacher Keltner’s experiments have shown how awe triggers prosocial behaviours. One starts noticing this emotion in the eyes of our co-passengers too. Because the Metro is associated with a city, this shared emotion becomes a feeling of pride not just among the users of the Metro but also among all the citizens of the city. This pride leads to a sense of collective ownership of and collective responsibility for the Metro among the ordinary citizens of the city. 

The emotional high and lack of established norms makes the creation of new social norms easier in the early stages of the Metro. In this state, Metro users are far more malleable to following instructions from authorities—to queue up, to give way, to not litter. Over a period of time, these behaviours become the new social norm of the place. No wonder that Kolkata Metro, even decades after it started services, remains cleaner than the rest of the city. 

Great leaders have understood the importance of the physical environment in shaping human behaviours. During discussions on rebuilding the war ravaged Commons Chamber in Britain, several legislators advised prime minister Winston Churchill to build the new Commons Chamber either in a semi-circular or horse-shoe design. But Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us". He insisted on continuing with the adversarial rectangular pattern which he believed was responsible for shaping the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy. 

Policy makers are working hard to make more of our cities “smart" and chief executive officers are keen to inculcate new behaviours in their organizations. All of them have a lot to learn from the context changes, the rituals, and emotions around our Metro stations that have managed to transform the public behaviours of a large number of people.

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

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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