I am not sure if I was more surprised, glad, or excited to see the recent 2015 World Development Report published by the World Bank Group. Knowing well this institution, I admit I did not expect to see the day when it would acknowledge that human behavior is not necessarily guided by rational considerations and that behavior change is not a linear process and needs to reflect the complexity of factors affecting such process. The possibility that rational thought is not at the basis of every human action is something quite revolutionary, at least within the mainstream boundaries of economic discourse.
The WDR entitled “Mind, Society and Behavior” seems to suggest that economists might actually have something to learn from behavioural scientists! However, such concepts have been floating around for a quite some time. A handful of social scientists, development scholars, and practitioners have been exploring, advocating, and applying to a different degree principles, which are now illustrated in the WDR and applying approaches that promote human agency and facilitate social change.
Orlando Fals-Borda, Paulo Freire, Richard Chambers, Erskine Childers, Luis Ramiro Beltran are some of the pioneers that have called for social change based on dialogic processes that work in the absence of hierarchical relations and that take into account local networks and participatory processes. They advocated for people’s active participation in development initiatives because it is every person’s right and because human behavior is more likely to change in a sustainable manner if the individual is part of the decision-making process.
In many instances, human actions are irrational or are guided by a rationality considered to be such only by the individual and are, hence, not truly rational. The lack of a clear consensus on what should be considered rational and what not (is there a rationality concept delinked from cultural considerations?) is also linked to a process in which decisions that are guided by rational considerations on the part of specific individuals become irrational when applied by a multitude of individuals (stock exchange crises are a good example of this).
The development literature is full of initiatives that have failed to deliver what they were expected to achieve. I have written and debated on a number of occasions how such under-achievements can be attributed mostly to two reasons, which are closely interlinked. The first is the belief that human behaviors are guided by rational decision-making processes, and the WB Development Report explains well how this is not so. The second is the belief, unfortunately still strong, that knowledge, when properly packaged in clear messages, can be a major factor in making people change their behaviors and practices.
Let me start from this second point. Despite the fact that the dominant discourse seems now to accept that behavior change needs to be addressed in a systematic, rigorous and integrated manner, the practice says something different. Just pick any major communication campaign aimed at promoting a specific change. You will see how the majority of such campaigns have no baseline or survey that can provide rigorous measurement on its effectiveness. Even more, some of these campaigns have received praises and awards and yet their messaging does not even stand the test of current theoretical appropriateness.
I am not sure about the best way to persuade decision-makers and professionals to walk the talk, but certainly being open and frank and nicely pointing out the specific campaigns that are not meeting the requisites for the intended change are necessary steps. Currently, I am aware of a couple of major multimillion campaigns that point out in their messages that a great number of people are adopting the wrong behavior and need to change. Evidence shows that such messages are actually more likely to reinforce the wrong behavior rather than influence people to adopt the intended one. Yet, some communication professionals continue to implement such campaigns which give high visibility returns (as it appears on mass media) and low-risks of perceived failure, but no proof of any positive impact!
The three principles enumerated in the WDR (i.e. thinking automatically, thinking socially, and thinking with mental models) synthesize well the theory and practice of human behavior, providing valuable insights about understanding, assessing, and planning “change”. They can also shed some insights about the recent tragic events in Paris, which indicate once more (tragically) violent, irrational behaviors are usually rooted in some social dimension, being political or religious. That is why adopting participatory communication approaches attuned to the cultural context is not always possible. It is not possible where there is no tolerance, no love
Going back to the significance of the WDR, it should be highlighted that there is no such thing as a universal tendency to act rationally, or better there is not a recognizably rational way of thinking which seems to guide human beings across the world. Human decisions are influenced by expectations and perceptions of those around us and guided by different factors and values— only some of which might belong to the western notion of rationality. That is why, when promoting change in development, the agenda cannot be set only, or mostly, by external experts but must be “negotiated” equally among the social realities of all stakeholders.
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Photograph, "Green Thought Bubbles" by MD via Flickr