Behavioural Change as Part of Development Practice

By V Santhakumar

Though the impact of social norms on human behaviour has been an important part of social sciences from the beginning, there is a realisation of the need now to integrate the findings from neurosciences, psychology, behavioural economics and anthropology to understand the specific ways in which these social norms or ways of​‘making sense’ impact the thinking and actions of individuals, which in turn impact development outcomes. 


Do poor people have to change their behaviour to enable their human development? Can practitioners bring about such behavioural change among the beneficiaries of their development actions? These are highly contested questions in social science and in debates on social change. This note attempts to answer these questions on the basis of recent literature. It highlights the importance of such a behavioural change as evident from the research in behavioural economics, neuroscience and other disciplines that have been effectively reviewed and summarised in the World Development Report (WDR) 2015. The purpose of this note is to communicate the key points from WDR and other sources to development practitioners. The note tries to use these insights in the context of India and identifies a set of specific changes in behaviour that are needed to address certain well-known issues of underdevelopment in the country.

Behavioural change: A contested terrain 

There are various historical and ideological reasons that encourage people to view the proposal for behavioural change with suspicion and anxiety. The colonial rulers from Europe argued that people in colonies follow cultural and behavioural practices which are opposed to modernisation’. This argument was rejected by scholars in the erstwhile colonies as part of their resistance against colonial rule and their hope and struggle to acquire independence.

Some sections of social scientists have genuine reasons to view with concern the explanations of poverty and underdevelopment in terms of the behavioural characteristics of the people who live in such situations. These may be seen as blaming the poor for their poverty’ or as an underestimation of the structural constraints (such as landlessness, feudalism, and the lack of access to education) that these poorer people face in their social contexts. The social scientists who are aligned with the left-of-centre political ideologies may focus on social and political mobilisation as the way out of poverty and underdevelopment. Social scientists who are wedded to a rational choice framework may try to see the rationality of the behaviour of people even if it may seem irrational. The cultural relativists, new anti-colonialists and post-modernists from different streams of scholarship may object to the proposals of behavioural change as attempts to modernise’ all human societies in a homogenous manner (which is primarily how the Western developed nations have evolved). Such a transformation, according to these scholars, is not only unnecessary but could be socially and ecologically harmful.

However, research in different disciplines and contexts has brought out the importance of behavioural change to address certain issues of underdevelopment. One can see the importance of such behavioural change for all sections of the people – poor or affluent. For example, such a change among the latter may be needed to address the challenges arising out of climate change. However, some behavioural traits can be costlier to poor people and may make their exit from poverty and underdevelopment more difficult. This argument is not advanced here to underestimate the need for structural changes (like enhancing the access to assets by those who lack these) or the importance of social and political mobilisation. Instead, the interventions to bring about behavioural change can be seen as complementary to the other efforts.

The Need for behavioural change

There is a greater realisation in recent times of the role of the social determination of the thinking and actions of individuals, and the impact of this on underdevelopment. The WDR 2015 deals with this issue. Though the impact of social norms on human behaviour has been an important part of social sciences from the beginning, there is a realisation of the need now to integrate the findings from neurosciences, psychology, behavioural economics and anthropology to understand the specific ways in which these social norms or ways of making sense’ impact the thinking and actions of individuals, which in turn impact development outcomes. The WDR (2015: 3) highlights three major features of human decision-making based on the _​evidence from a large number of research papers.

First, people make most judgments and most choices automatically, not deliberatively: we call this thinking automatically.” Second, how people act and think often depends on what others around them do and think: we call this thinking socially.” Third, individuals in a given society share a common perspective on making sense of the world around them and understanding themselves: we call this thinking with mental models”.’

Automatic thinking implies that people may simplify problems and view them through narrower frames. The connections that we see around us or the belief systems shaped by these connections may be used to make judgments and decisions. We may not question the validity of these belief systems or assumptions. For example, people in specific contexts may see many women only do household work or people belonging to the Dalit communities do unskilled work and this may lead them to believe that this is the only work that they can do well. They may think that only mothers can take care of children and hence, it is desirable that mothers do not take up paid work. Such beliefs may influence choices and decisions regarding education and employment.

A person’s tendency to imitate the behaviour of others around him/​her is strong and can have both positive and negative implications. The reduction in fertility rate and the use of electricity and gadgets may come about through such a demonstration effect (when people copy the behaviour of their neighbours). The spending of excessive amounts of money on marriage and family functions is also a practice influenced by local social behaviour. Peers have an influence on the behaviour of students and these may determine their educational achievements. Smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol and other such problems can also start as part of this tendency to imitate others. An individual’s decision about doing the right thing or not in a specific context – for example, the decision of an auto-rickshaw driver to charge as per the meter or to demand an inflated rate – also depends on what others in the same job/​situation are doing. This may lead to two equilibrium situations: one, where almost all people collect tariffs based on the meter; and another where the charge is arbitrarily demanded.

The finding that individuals use a common perspective or a mental model to think about the world around them, informs us about human behaviour in specific contexts. The way people in many villages in India respond to inter-caste marriages or relationships is an example. Those who punish such couples (with or without the participation of khap panchayats) believe that such a marriage is not only harmful to society but also immoral. I am sure that many Hindus who do not eat beef may find it difficult to accept the fact that there are people who relish beef. Mental models can influence the approach of educated people too. Whether some people take climate change seriously or not depends on their mental model and not necessarily on the research findings of the issue. This would mean that the change in the way a particular individual takes decisions may require a change in the society’s ways of making sense of reality.

The behavioural traits mentioned here are valid for all individuals, irrespective of their incomes and levels of education and are visible in both developed and developing countries. People who are involved in making development policies and also academics from different disciplines (social science) are not free from these influences in their behaviour.

Though these behavioural traits are common among people from different walks of life, their impact may be different based on the endowments and accumulated wealth of the people. For example, certain incorrect decisions, lax behaviour or personal ineffectiveness may not affect the basic livelihood of people who are affluent. However, the consequences of such behaviour could be severe for the poorer people (if it affects their education, savings, productivity, and so on). There could be another reason for the unequal impact on the poor. These people may not have enough resources (due to the issues of cognitive development in childhood or the lack of time and mental bandwidth which has to be focussed on sustenance activities) for deliberative thinking, which may make them more prone to automatic thinking. Or as noted in the literature, poverty may impose a cognitive tax.

There are other insights emerging from sociology and psychology which have a bearing on human behaviour that, in turn, affect development outcomes. There are many people who for some reason are not visualising a better life. I remember interviewing a mother who had married off her daughter at the age of 11 years. For her, it was the only sensible’ decision to save the life of her daughter given her circumstances (a husband who was not supporting them, lack of money to pay more dowry if the girl grew older and was educated, her inability to ensure the safety of her daughter, and so on). Due to her current situation, she could not think of any other possible way of ensuring the welfare of (or a better life for) her daughter. Similarly, many parents are not interested in their children doing their schooling well because they cannot visualise a better life through education.

We have seen many people who study for examinations only at the eleventh hour or complete work only when there is a tough and unchangeable deadline. This is also part of observed human behaviour – a common behaviour which discounts future rewards. Even when we know that there is a reward in future for our current actions, we may be tempted to postpone it until the last moment and focus on that which gives us immediate gratification.

Stereotyping could have a strong influence on human behaviour. Girls may perform badly in mathematics if they are told beforehand that girls, in general, are not as good as boys in maths. On the other hand, their performance can be better if this information is not shared with them. A similar experiment was conducted with students belonging to lower castes in India and the negative impact of stereotyping could be clearly seen.

In addition, the choices of human beings are determined by ideological affiliations, and these are discussed in detail here. People filter in available information in a manner that confirms their preconceptions. This is found to be true even among well-educated development researchers – like those who are employed by the World Bank (WDR2015).

The developments in experimental or behavioural economics during the last two to three decades inform us that the actual behaviour of human beings in certain cases can be slightly different from what is presumed in microeconomics. In the sub-discipline of experimental economics, psychologists and economists study human behaviour by looking at the choices/​actions in experimental situations. Such experiments have brought out a number of insights.

People value losses and gains differently. They are more concerned about potential losses. Consider one person who has Rs 15,000 in hand. If he loses Rs 100, he may feel the loss. If he gets Rs 100 more, he should be happier. The loss of happiness in the first case and the gain of happiness in the second should be somewhat equal’ in theory. However, in reality, people may perceive a much higher loss (of happiness) when they lose a given amount of money (when they have a fixed wealth) than the gain in happiness that they would get when they gain the same amount of money. So, people are more concerned about losses. There is a tendency to preserve what they already have; their perceived loss/​gain is based on this benchmark.

This may have implications on how incentives may be designed. Even when an additional incentive is offered in organisations, some employees may not be motivated to perform well. On the other hand, they may be motivated to meet the targeted performance if the bonus is fixed beforehand and if it is reduced when the performance does not meet the target.

I have seen individuals who spend money very carefully. They will try to minimise the cost on many counts. One can argue that they can devote the same effort to make a little more money. They can do a little more work to gain additional income from whatever activity they do. However, people who are very careful in spending money are not necessarily willing to take the same care or effort to make more money. (This need not be due to any idea that making more money is bad). This behaviour may affect the effectiveness of some of the development projects or programs (by the government or NGOs) that encourage farmers or other such people to expand their operations.

Theoretically, one should not take a loan to buy something if one has the money to pay for it. In reality, some people may take a loan even if they have enough savings to purchase an item. Their logic is that if they take the loan, they may be compelled to reduce their consumption in future to pay back the loan. On the other hand, they would not have such a compulsion if they used their own savings. Here too, one can see the benchmark effect. If someone has Rs 2,00,000 in hand, there is a compulsion to preserve that status, which may encourage the person to take and pay back the loan by reducing future consumption. On the other hand, if the person uses Rs 50,000 from his/​her savings for the purchase of an item, then his/​her benchmark wealth would come down to Rs 1,50,000 and then he/​she may not have that much compulsion to reduce the future consumption and save Rs 50,000 more and increase his/​her wealth back to Rs 2,00,000.

Though we know from our own experience and experimental economics confirms that people can be lazy’ or they have what can be called, inertia’. People may not be careful’ in taking the steps which are good for them. There can be some reluctance to move out of the status quo even if it is good for them to do so. This reluctance can have negative implications. Let us take an example. A company decides to have a new pension scheme, which would be beneficial for its employees. The company can announce the scheme in two ways. Either it can ask its employees to register for the new scheme if they want to or it can ask employees to inform the company if someone doesn’t want to be part of it. (In the second case, everybody would be part of the scheme unless someone takes the step to opt-out). Based on the understanding of rationality, one would expect that all employees who want to be part of the program would register, irrespective of the two different methods of the announcement. However, experiments have shown that more employees are likely to be part of the program when the second approach is used, in which they are in’ even without making any effort to be part of it. This is so since getting registered is the default option. This may indicate that there could be some inertia preventing (some) people from taking steps that are beneficial to them. Therefore, there is a need to nudge people to take steps which are good for them.

The experiments also showed that people are willing to sacrifice something for fairness’. Or they are willing to sacrifice gains from what they consider an unfair’ deal. This is demonstrated through their behaviour in a game called, dividing the pie’. A person gives some money (say, Rs 10) to A and asks A to divide it between himself/​herself and person B. A can offer any amount to B, the latter can accept or reject it. For instance, A can offer Rs 0.1 to B, and if B accepts it, A will get Rs 9.9 (and Rs 10 if B rejects the offer). In a number of instances, people in the position of B were not willing to accept such meagre offers. Accepting any amount of money would have made them better off since they were gaining something more compared to their current situation. People, in general, may not accept offers which are less than 30% of the amount of money divided in such games. It shows that they are willing to sacrifice something when they see the division as unfair. This cannot be explained based on the rationality of individuals used in conventional microeconomics.

Let us take an example which is closer to the real world. Ram is a farmer who has one acre of land by the side of a highway. He is making a profit of Rs 1,00,000 per year from that land through sugarcane cultivation. Raju, a local moneyed person (who has some political connections) wants to create a petrol/​gas station on this land. Since Raju does not want to buy the land, he proposes the petrol station as a joint venture between him and Ram. It is expected that this venture would give a net profit of Rs 10,00,000 per year. Out of this, Raju offers Rs 1,50,000 per year to Ram. Strictly speaking, Ram is going to be better off if he accepts this offer. However, Ram may not accept the offer since he thinks that the division of the profit from the petrol station, that is, Rs 1,50,000 for Ram and Rs 8,50,000 for Raju, is unfair. This attitude may work against deals which are, theoretically, beneficial to both parties.

However, a willingness to reject not-so-fair deals may be useful in creating a less iniquitous society. However, this provides another important lesson to development practice. First, the adherence to principles of fairness while protecting one’s interests may work against reaching agreements, even if these, if reached, can be mutually beneficial. Hence, one should not be surprised by the breaking down of bilateral and multilateral negotiations. This can be a reason for the difficulty in reaching agreements on how to deal with the challenges posed by climate change. Yet another important lesson is that cooperation cannot be sustained just because it is mutually beneficial to both parties but only when the fairness issue is also taken into account.

All these indicate the need for an experimental approach to development practice. Certain strategies that may work in one context may not work well in other contexts. However, randomised control trials and other experiments have produced substantial literature on effective ways of influencing or changing behaviour to make it more amenable to the needs of development. We have information currently on the usefulness of different instruments that encourage people to use schooling for their children, appropriate healthcare or to save more. This information has to be part of the education of development practitioners.

A change in behaviours and social norms seems hugely important for addressing the issues of underdevelopment faced by India. This is evident from the fact that despite an improvement in the provisioning of schooling, demand factors continue to work against the completion of schooling for significant sections of society. Norms, along with other factors, shape this demand for education. Yet another issue is the lower work participation rate of women, which has implications for both human development and economic growth of the country. The need to change behaviour and social norms is quite obvious in this regard. A behavioural change is also relevant for the avoidance of open defecation, the adoption of healthy practices (like the starting of breastfeeding immediately after child delivery), etc. Moreover, the persistence of discrimination along caste, race and gender, though they have structural determinants, are linked to human behaviour and social norms. Though this issue is well recognised within the development literature, it is yet to become part of the knowledge base of development practitioners.

Specific cases and strategies in the Indian context 

  • It may be possible to use television serials and other such programs to communicate the messages of desirable behavioural changes. The need for programs to change norms is recognised in eradicating the practice of open defecation and there are interesting experiments going on in the country for this purpose. At the same time, it should be ensured that these television programs do not promote socially harmful practices such as excessive consumption, socially wasteful expenditures and so on.
  • The importance of financial disciplines needs to be communicated effectively through popular narratives and by exposing people to social contexts which have undergone desirable social changes. The exposure to the new social contexts may create new mental models enabling people to think about a better life. This need for creating aspirations or the dream of a desirable world is important in several contexts in India. This is needed for the education of girls and children from the lower castes and the scheduled tribes. The absence of such aspirations may discourage them from learning well even when they continue to be in school. Multiple strategies may be required for this purpose. Consciously cultivating role models from these social groups who have benefitted from education could be one. The experience and success of these role models may have to be communicated widely. Inspirational videos can be used for such communication.
  • The influence of prevailing mental models may encourage people to behave in ways that may not be desirable for their development. Sex selection or punishment meted out to inter-caste couples in many parts of India is based on the prevalent mental model, and there are contexts within India where people live comfortably with only daughters or in inter-caste marriages. Though legal prohibition (of sex selection at birth or the actions of a community against inter-caste marriage) is possible, it is not completely effective due to social incentives and hence, strategies to change mental models must be tried out.
  • There is a need for saving for specific purposes. This is so because people may not allocate enough expenditure for a certain purpose if it is to be used from their aggregate savings. Hence, savings for the higher education of girls could be a useful instrument since there could be various reasons that may work against such an expenditure. (Many governments provide support for the marriage of girls, which may not be conducive to their education and empowerment).
  • There are cases where people (the educated too) are not equipped to make the necessary assessments’ of certain choices. When finance companies or others declare daily interest rates, they may not be able to calculate the annual rate and compare it with the prevailing bank rate. People do not pay attention to the small print in many offers and this may affect their welfare. Many illiterate Indians make wrong choices. Even otherwise, making correct financial choices is not easy. I have seen many people (even educated ones) being cheated by fly-by-night financial operators. People act without seeking information either by simply believing that such information is not needed or by accepting what a few other people tell them to do. Many people may not act timely to participate in schemes even if such participation is useful to them. Hence, information provision by all possible means – including those that can be easily accessed by technology and social media – is important. The role of reminders, public notices, non-monetary gifts (which are given at the time of subscription), and making products convenient and easy to understand, is important.
  • The one area where some progress is achieved in India is the provision of early childhood education (ECE) which is necessary for the socio-emotional and cognitive stimulation of children and essential for their cognitive development and achievements during adulthood. Though a system for ECE is in place, this is not well-utilised (for the cognitive stimulation of infants) in many parts of the country. Making ECE more effective is an important contributor to the cognitive development of the population.
  • Middle-class people too may invest in a second house, land or other assets by following what other people do, without thinking about the potential difficulties in liquidating these when they are in need of cash. There should be efforts to understand future costs and gains. When consumption is not necessarily driven by one’s own needs but by the habit of thinking like everyone else, there can be problems due to reduced savings. When people get a bulk amount at the time of retirement, they may not save it for long-term social security (through pensions) hence, mandatory saving in pension schemes helps.


There is a need for behavioural change among development researchers and practitioners. The research conducted among the researchers of the World Bank has shown that they are prone to biases, ideological pre-conditioning, and incorrect presumptions regarding the abilities of the beneficiaries of development actions. Hence, they should be made aware of their possible influences if their research is to inform development actions or policies. This is true of the development practitioners too. They need to be more open to data which does not conform to their theory of action and also need to experiment in every context. Some of these issues are discussed here.

Organisations involved in development practice should be more open to criticism from within and outside. There needs to be arguments and counter-arguments at the time of design and at every stage of the project implementation. However, many organisations may not have a culture and conducive environment that encourages their employees to openly express their genuine disagreements and concerns about the strategy of the organisation. Of course, the leadership of organisations may be concerned about the possible hurdles that such arguments may have but there should be a balance and innovative practices which enable critical engagement without affecting the process of implementation. It is also necessary to engage with external critiques’ without seeing them as adversaries.


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University