For first-time Indian travellers, stepping out of the airport in Singapore or Japan is a momentous, potentially mindset-changing experience. How can bustling cities packed with people be so spotless?

As far as the eye can go, there is not a single piece of stray paper on the road or in public transport. How does that compare with our paan-stained buses filled with peanut shells? Public littering is a social issue that results in massive aesthetic, financial and health-related costs for India.

It’s not as if we don’t value cleanliness (which, as we have always been taught, is next to Godliness). Our homes are the text book definition of clean. But walk in a cramped gully in Delhi or even on the main road and everything that is not desirable inside, finds its way outside.

The question then is, if Singapore and Japan can do it, why can’t India? Especially since all three are culturally so similar.

Nobody in their right mind, who has been to these countries, could possibly agree. But cultural psychologists have found that Japan, Singapore, and India are all extremely “tight" cultures. Tight (versus loose) cultures are those where the strength of social norms is high and the tolerance for deviant or non-conforming behaviour is low. On the other hand, loose cultures have weak social norms and high tolerance for non-conforming behaviour. 

In other words, in Japan, Singapore, and India, the socially normative behaviour is crystal clear and deviation from this normative behaviour has severe consequences. Hence, in all three countries, the tendency to conform is sky-high.

Power of norms

If the tendency to conform is high, where is the problem? The problem is what to conform to. In other words, what is considered normatively correct? 

In India, littering on the road is the norm. In Japan, cleanliness is the norm. Both cultures are remarkable at following the applicable norms. No wonder then, that the same Indians who throw empty bottles of water outside their moving cars are unrecognizable in Japan as they go around the city with their trash in their hands looking for a dustbin.

Or why go that far, the Metro stations in Delhi (and Kolkata) are (largely) clean. It is a function of what the norm is in a Metro station—which is cleanliness—and it is followed meticulously.

As a thought experiment, imagine somebody leaves a couple of polythene bags and papers in a corner on a metro station. Now imagine that this isn’t cleaned for three days. What do you think will happen on the fourth day?

I can bet that you will now see a much bigger pile of rubbish there (and perhaps, across the entire station). Littering must be acceptable because that pile of trash has been there for a few days.

Extant research has repeatedly found that people follow what they see others doing. Not surprisingly, a consistent finding in behavioural research is that the act of littering is significantly more likely in an already littered place than a clean one.

In an experimental study, a grocery store was systematically littered on alternate days with 140 handbills. When the store was littered, a total of 32 out of 639 handbill recipients disposed of their handbills on the floor. However, when the store was free of handbill litter, only 6 of 616 customers dropped a handbill on the floor. If the absolute numbers seem small, please consider that it’s a whopping 81% reduction in the incidence of littering.

In summary, we are infinitely more likely to litter an already littered place than a clean one. People are at least marginally aware of what is the normatively acceptable behaviour in a particular context and tend to act in accordance. 

“Sab chalta hai"—following the social proof

To put this into perspective, norms are defined as “jointly negotiated rules of social behaviour". So what is the socially understood reality of littering in India? Answer: Everyone does it.

Psychologists call these “descriptive norms". Simply put, this is our understanding of “what most others do". If most others keep their homes spotlessly clean and throw their trash on the road, we do that. If most others keep their city spotlessly clean (Japan), we do that.

“What is being done" (descriptive norm) tends to over-ride the injunctive norm (what should be, or what I ought to do—that is socially approved). If so many people are throwing their ice-cream sticks on the road, do I look like an idiot to walk half a block to dispose mine in a trash bin? One may know what is right (what should be done), but will likely end up doing what most others do.

But the same people, when they move from Karol Bagh in Delhi to Orchard Road in Singapore, will be at their most impeccable behaviour. Not difficult to understand—when in Rome, we do as the Romans do, or more colloquially “jaisa des, waisa bhes".

Transparency and accountability

So what can be done to make Bharat truly swachh? Recently, renowned behavioural scientist Dan Ariely was asked how to get co-workers to not leave their dirty dishes and mugs in the sink right under a sign that says, “Please clean up and put your dishes away".

Ariely shared that they had experienced the same issue in their lab. As soon as there was one dirty mug in the sink, people thought it was perfectly acceptable to keep adding more dirty mugs (the power of descriptive norms in action). The solution?

They bought everyone a personalized mug (with their name on it)—making the culprit obvious. There were no dirty mugs left since then.

Transparency solved the issue here because anonymity reduces accountability—making it easier to commit transgressions and behaviours that one would not do if people were to know. If people know that their undesirable actions can be attributed to them, the tendency to act in such a way goes down dramatically.

Unfortunately, that’s not a practical solution for a country of over 1.3 billion people. But making people accountable for the stretch of land right in front of their house is a possibility. For that to work, the slate has to be wiped clean.

One of the most effective interventions to prevent littering is to clean up a dirty space. Environments that are clean will nudge people to not litter, whereas unclean environments will evoke a “chalta hai" attitude. Even a couple of pieces of trash are likely to begin a slippery-slope effect and make people think “everybody litters here".

The other, more doable solution validated by research focuses on social approval. The premise is to make the injunctive norm, or what one should do, salient. 

In other words, getting people to focus on “what other people typically approve and disapprove of in a situation". Research shows that making the injunctive norm against littering salient is effective in reducing the incidence of littering even in previously dirty environments.

In a seminal paper by Robert Cialdini, experimenters placed handbills with five different messages on the driver’s side of the windshield on the cars in a public library parking lot. Each handbill had one of these five different messages: public appeal for not littering, urging people to recycle, an environment related message about energy conservation, urging people to vote or advertising an arts and culture month.

Not surprisingly, people were least likely to throw the handbill on the floor when they read the anti-littering message and were progressively more likely to litter if they encountered the other four messages that took focus away from the “right" behaviour of not littering in a public place. Hence, making the “the right thing to do" salient, is an immensely helpful tactic in reducing environmentally undesirable behaviour.

Social identity and a little nudge

We take care of places we belong to, i.e., our home. Expanding this sense of belongingness to the wider community can have a strong beneficial influence, as promoting group identity is shown to increase environmentally conscious behaviour.

People who strongly identify with their locality/community/neighbourhood are not only much more likely to behave in an environmentally conscious way, but also compensate for their neighbours’ less-than-desirable behaviour. Increasing the feeling of “belongingness" to the community is a powerful driver for doing the right thing for the benefit of the community.

While these are mostly behavioural interventions, how can we inherently motivate the people of India to keep both inside and outside of their homes clean? Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler’s work provides a helpful clue.

Loss aversion is one of the most prevalent biases in human decision making. Specifically, gaining $5 makes us a lot less happy than the extent to which a loss of $5 makes us sad.

In other words, losses loom larger than gains. As argued in this piece, if loss aversion is a proven human folly, are we better off focusing on the risks of littering, such as child mortality and diseases like malaria, diarrhoea, and cholera, rather than the gains of cleanliness?

While behavioural science provides several interventions to further the cause of a cleaner India, do your part by focusing on what you ought to do (and not what others seem to be doing). Hopefully, with enough people doing “the right thing to do"—the injunctive norm of “I must take ownership of my country’s cleanliness" will take over the descriptive norm “sab chalta hai" in defining behaviour. 

Shilpa Madan is a marketer turned consumer psychologist. Her research interests lie at the intersection of cultural beliefs and consumption choices. Having worked with Unilever in sales and marketing in her past life, she now aspires to bridge the academia-business chasm through Serein Insights, an endeavour to de-mystify and leverage academic research for solving diverse problems for businesses and brands. She tweets at @Shilpa_Madan

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