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Behavioural and Attitude Change through Design


As the ‘Anti- Rape Protests’ died down and the trial of the six rape accused began in Delhi, the three member committee headed by former chief justice J S Verma submitted their report on the 23rd of January to the Government suggesting amendment of criminal laws to provide for higher punishment to rapists. Most of the recommendations in the committees report pander to mechanisms that will ensure speedy trial and delivery of justice. Of course a few points like police reforms, decriminalization of politics, juvenile administrative reform and broadening the scope of sexual crimes will play a pivotal role in preventing sexual crimes borne out of sexual prejudice and societal unbalance.

I am sure all of us understand that it takes much more than Stringent Law enforcement to stem the rot that has permeated the moral fundamentals of our society. Innumerable Social evils like Sexual Crime continue to wreak havoc on our conscience at disturbingly frequent intervals. Laws will only help in punishing evil doers but if we are serious about social upheaval by eradicating social evils then it is time to identify, understand and attack the root of the problems. The long term solutions will definitely take time but it is the only way to contain the scourge of societal evil in a meaningful and consistently effective manner.

One of the long term solutions that is of interest to me as a designer is Behavioural and Attitude change through Design. Design is meant to stimulate, appease and invigorate a human mind. Why then should design only be used to bring out the gadgets of the future, making movies with spectacular graphics or creating brilliant ads that make multinational companies richer? Why can’t the world of design harness the energy it possesses to change the way an entire country like India thinks? Before I delve into the possible ways in which the world of Design can transform behaviours and mindsets, let us first get to know the basics: Everybody knows that Kanye West jumping onto the stage when Taylor Swift received an award is Bad Behaviour. But technically what is the difference between an individual’s attitude and behaviour?

Attitude is a positive or negative evaluation of people, objects, activities, ideas in your environment. In short, it is your mindset about anything and everything. Behaviour is the range of actions and mannerisms made by organisms in conjunction with their environment, which includes other systems or organisms around as well as the physical environment. In short, it is the physical display of your attitude because more often than not, it is a person’s mindset about any issue that reflects in their behaviour. Experts agree that it is easier to change an individual’s behaviour rather than to alter their mindsets. Many of the flawed mindsets and attitudes in people are mostly born out of one of the many Cognitive Biases (a deviation of judgement). An Example of a type of Cognitive Bias is Belief bias, which is an effect where someone’s evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by their foregone believability in its conclusion (Like a Muslim politician on TV who argued for the Ban on Kamal Hassan’s latest movie because it was Anti-Islam without even watching it in the first place!) In a country like India, the lack of meaningful debate and reasoning about any issue as seen frequently inside the parliament is now an endemic. This is why the role of design is all the more important to bring about a lasting, consistent solution in tackling social evils through efficient sensitization of our citizens and institutions. It will take time and will be a continuous process but it is the only way out.

So how can Design help?
I want to first give you three examples that highlight a classic case of Design with the intent of behavioural change.

While the video above highlights a negative reinforcement campaign against Smoking that uses the ‘fear of death’ as a deterrent to smoking, the following example uses a more positive approach that encourages people in a subway to use the stairway rather than escalator.

Another classic example of Behavioural Change through Design is as shown below where simple material properties are used to condition road users.

As you can see, rough textured paving acts as a subtle barrier between cycle and pedestrian tracks. The moment a cycle strays over its intended track, the rider can feel the vibration which encourages him to switch back to the right track!

The above examples show us the way in which Design of products and systems helps people to consciously or subconsciously alter their behaviour to suit the welfare of a society. But to take it a step further, how can Design go beyond just conditioned behavioural change and strike at the heart of the problem- which is to alter the mindset of an individual or group of people who pose a threat to society. Because unless an individual changes his or her attitude, behavioural change will only be driven by either negative or positive reinforcements like a punishment or a reward!

Pavlov’s Classic conditioning theory clearly explains the point I am trying to make- Pavlov, a Russian physiologist realized that his pet dog began to salivate upon seeing its bowl of meat every day. He then tried an experiment in the coming days wherein he rang a bell just minutes before the meat was served to the dog. Voila! The dog soon started to salivate at the sound of the bell fully realizing that the meat will be on its way soon. This experiment highlights the fact that it is easier to train the dog to respond to a secondary stimulant, namely the bell while the dogs target still remains its primary stimulant which is the meat.

Now replace the dog with a human being and his stimulant with an attitude to exercise total control over a woman even if it meant sexual assault. This is where the real challenge for Design which is Attitude and Mindset Change surfaces. The answer lies in how effectively we use Design to constantly sensitize and spread awareness through every section of society. A simple example of Sensitization through Design which paves way for a change in mindset is shown in the following example:

This simple LED light driven water dispenser not only drives behavioural change but also focuses on the user’s attitude towards water conservation. Observe how the simple idea to make the user realize how much water he or she uses by providing a visual reference goes a long way in reminding them about the importance of water conservation. It is this constant drive towards attitudinal change that will ultimately result in voluntary behavioural change.

Likewise, imagine a simple message or graphic on the polythene bags that are sold in their millions across the world every day. A subtle message that reminds the user how they are contributing to an environmental disaster will make the individual aware of their actions and consequences. The primary step that triggers attitude change is the process of creating awareness. The task of making a billion people to be aware of all the social evils that plagues their society is no joke- All the more reason for Design to play a proactive role in awareness and sensitization campaigns.

As the water dispenser example above signifies, the trouble with people is the fact that social evil permeates our society just like the manner in which user’s waste large amounts of water without realizing it. The world of Design allows us to throw light on such important issues, thus easing the process of Behavioural change. Design has to take up the task of highlighting the pros and cons of prejudiced mindsets and the effects it has on all sections of our society. Design needs to make the process of reasoning and meaningful debate a must whenever a conflict or controversy arises.

2 Responses to “Behavioural and Attitude Change through Design”

  1. [...] Behavioural Change through Design [...]

  2. umashankar says:

    First of all, a huge thank you for sharing those immensely engrossing videos. I loved them all and appreciated the difference between the positive and negative reinforcement. My favourite though, is the cigarette clip. Since rape appears to be a fairly important, if not the chief, concern of your post, I am afraid the ‘design for change’ will have to be worked out with the target in mind, which can be seriously depraved, even if a minor. For the starters, the change will have to introduced in the machinery responsible for upholding law and order, i.e., the police and the judiciary. Can we then start designing it for the crawling judiciary and the trolling police please?

    Overall, What an idea Sir ji!

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