From climate change to income inequality, from terrorism to the trafficking of girls, the world has several problems to solve. The solutions suggested most frequently involve generating more awareness about their negative consequences.

Studying several human behaviour problems, one realizes that lack of awareness is not the root cause of many of these. For that matter, most of these problems occur despite very high levels of awareness. The perpetrators of rape know very well that one should not even touch a woman inappropriately. A man who has had one drink too many knows very well that he shouldn’t be at the wheel. Despite billions of dollars being spent on awareness campaigns, the world’s leading problems persist. So, the belief that a change in attitudes will change behaviour needs to be relooked.

Recent developments in the field of cognitive neuroscience reinforce the importance of action. In her book Mind In Motion: How Action Shapes Thought, Barbara Tversky makes the groundbreaking case that actions and not language are the true foundation of our thought. Evolutionarily, action came long before the development of language. A newborn baby learns more by seeing others do something and then feeling the feedback on doing the same. A set of neurons called “mirror neurons" helps the brain better assimilate the emotions of the actions one is observing. Repeated action changes the wiring of the brain, and soon, that particular action gets imprinted in the non-conscious body schema.

The human brain is better adapted to action than speech. Unfortunately, most of the action we indulge in is to get world leaders and governments to act. Instead, we need an orientation to generate action within each individual citizen.

The first step in creating an action-orientation is to convert a particular problem into a set of behaviours that needs to be changed and a set that is to be started anew. Let’s take the problem of climate change. What frequent behaviours of ordinary citizens cause this problem? The use of private transport does contribute to it. So, to counter this behaviour, the individual citizen should be exhorted to use public transport more often. Instead of portraying global warming as a problem that is happening because of Amazon forest fires, this approach makes the problem more relatable to the individual and makes her believe that she has the ability to be a part of the solution.

In many cases, the real causes of poor behaviour might not be apparent at first sight. For a long time, it was assumed that accidents while crossing railway tracks were caused by carelessness or over-confidence. But the knowledge that the human brain is not capable of accurately judging the speed of large objects changed our understanding of this problem. This insight led to a design intervention, with yellow markings offering trespassers a speed reference, that generated appropriate behaviour.

Even if we identify the correct behaviour to adopt, it is not easy to initiate it. Several micro actions are required to ingrain any behaviour in an individual. These micro actions are focused on removing the small but important micro barriers to a larger behaviour. It was wrongly believed that building toilets will end the problem of open defecation. Even after building a toilet, individuals did not emotionally connect with that space. This was evident when they did not even bother to paint it. But it was found that getting them to paint a toilet the same colour as the rest of the house improved the household’s relationship with it. Getting them to purchase a vessel to store water in the toilet further improved the commitment to using the facility. No doubt, this strategy based on micro actions is far superior to that of using awareness about germs to raise toilet usage.

Before introducing a new behaviour, it is important to understand the existing solutions that people are using to mitigate the problem. Working on the issue of garbage collection in a slum, for example, threw up some insights. It was found that households on the ground floor throwing their waste around was the main cause of the problem. But surprisingly, it was found that those on the first floor did not throw garbage down. They dutifully collected their waste in a plastic bag. Once this positive deviance was identified, it was easier to design an intervention that could get households on the ground floor too to collect their garbage in a disposable plastic bag. Instead of importing new behaviours into a system, one should always look for positive deviances that already exist in it.

It is true that mass media is the ideal choice when it comes to creating awareness. But using mass media, which is distant, spatially and temporally, from the actual place of action, is not the appropriate media choice to induce behavioural shifts. Positive action is best generated by design interventions at the very point of action.

The human brain always seeks consistency. Once an action has occurred, the brain’s need for consistency will force it to look for justification. Discomfort always occurs when there is some inconsistency between one’s behaviour and one’s thoughts. This need for justification will force the cognition process in the brain to adjust one’s attitude to be in line with one’s action.

Behaviours other than those that have been initiated with large rewards have a large tendency to replicate themselves. Humans observe the actions of others more than they hear their words. When even a small number of people demonstrate a new behaviour in a society, it can gain enough social traction to set off a chain reaction. So, action begets more action.

To solve the most significant problems of the world, we should focus on action generation. A change in attitudes will follow suit.

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

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