Home >Opinion >Columns >What the face mask taught us about solving problems

Which of the interventions, among social distancing, hand washing and wearing of masks, was widely implemented and thus contributed most to reducing the spread of the covid pandemic? As the economy opened up, especially with public transport running again, social distancing was less rigorously followed. Since hand washing was an activity that was done mostly in one’s private space, it is difficult to evaluate its adoption. Given its visibility, it was much easier to monitor and implement mask-wearing. It also gave a much-needed public face to an otherwise invisible problem.

Many problems are invisible to human eyes, with the result that they are often not taken seriously. The invisibility of a problem could be on account of the microscopic nature of its cause, as with a pathogen, or the fact that it occurs in closeted spaces, as in the case of domestic violence. What this pandemic has taught us is that if an unseen problem like covid is addressed by visible interventions like mask-wearing, it is easier to establish its existence in popular perception. When such overt measures are adopted widely enough to become social norms, the larger society starts playing a larger role in solving the problem.

Traditionally, all behavioural-change exercises have been initiatives aimed at the individual. For decades, health authorities tried to encourage non-smoking at an individual level. Medical warnings printed on cigarette packs for individual smokers to see did not achieve any significant change in their smoking behaviour. But in 1999, a division bench of the Kerala high court made smoking in public places an illegal activity. This judgement gave a visible face to the problem—smoking in public places. With this visible element, smoking was no more an individual problem that affected an individual smoker’s health, but it became a social problem that affected the health of millions of non-smokers. It is interesting to note that as more and more public places across the world banned smoking, the individual habit of smoking in private spaces also began to show declining trends.

In his book Social Physics, MIT professor Alex Pentland reminds us that we must stop thinking of people as independent decision makers. According to professor Pentland, learning from the example of other people’s behaviour is a dominant mechanism of behavioural change in humans.

Changes in individual behaviour are tough to achieve because it is very easy for the person to come up with irrational excuses unto oneself. We all know the innovative pretexts we give ourselves every morning to skip a walk, for example. Changes brought about by social pressure have more stickiness because the commitment is made not unto oneself, but many others. Imagine having your friends waiting for you to join them on their morning walk. You are very unlikely to miss it. Social pressure for change is invariably stronger than a call from within.

As a first step away from individual-level behavioural change towards social-level endeavours of this kind, we could identify problems that have clearly visible faces. To tackle the problem of alcoholism, instead of focusing on the health hazards of binge-drinking to the individual, the single-minded focus of the government could move towards curbing the most visible face of it—drunken driving. Viewed through this particular lens, alcoholism is no longer an individual problem, but one that affects the safety of the public at large. One cannot justify one’s drinking if this behaviour has a grievous impact on others.

Take another instance. The government is keen to solve the country’s problem of income tax avoidance. Paying taxes has been considered a private act, so far. But wealth creation is not. We see various lists published that enumerate the wealth of the rich and famous. If the wealth possessed and/or created by a person is public knowledge, why should their tax payments be a private affair? The income tax department should routinely publish a list of the country’s top taxpayers, people who contribute large sums to India’s coffers. The honouring of these contributors to nation-building will stir up public discussions that will make tax payment more of a social issue.

Given this new realization, we could have managed the covid vaccination drive quite differently. A reassurance on the safety of available vaccines was a necessary first step for the programme. But this communication should have been followed by a public campaign that showed ‘people similar to us’ taking shots in large numbers. Offering such social proof could have significantly helped reduce vaccine hesitancy.

An engine that could further accelerate this social-level approach to behavioural change is the availability of data. Studying behaviour is no longer about interviewing a few hundred people. Today, public data inputs across languages, in terms of text, images, video clips and logs from sensors and myriad other sources are available. The field of artificial intelligence deploys various techniques to parse such large amounts of public data and give us intelligent insights on human behaviour.

It is true that in many spheres where human behaviour holds the key to outcomes, such as brand management, greater personalization seems to be the future. But in many other areas, we would achieve more by going with the opposite trend, of making the problem an increasingly social issue. The face mask is a visible example of this.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist at Fractal Analytics and chairman at FinalMile Consulting

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