Honest Criminals & Perfect Husbands

By Nirat Bhatnagar, WASH for India

I read a fascinating article by Christian Jarrett at The British Psychological Society blog: “Jailed criminals think they are kinder, more trustworthy, & honest than the average member of the public”. Image

I had previously seen research showing how research participants believed that they were better drivers than the average, that they were more capable managers than the average, and that they were more intelligent than the average individual and so on. (Note: All of these are impossibilities since all the people in any given population cannot be better than the average and hence people are biased in how they think about themselves). But criminals believing they were better than the average member of society was a surprising finding.

This is a classic cognitive bias that affects people’s self perceptions and their consequent behavior. I started thinking about the sanitation behavior change project that Arghyam is doing in Davangere, and how it might be getting affected by the subconscious biases that people in the target villages hold. Readers can read my last post which describes this project here.

The “awareness through IEC” part of the program uses the “Responsible Man” as the core communication lever. It tries to get men to realize the problems (mostly around personal safety and dignity) that women and girls in their families face in the absence of a toilet.

There are at least two biases (I’m using this term loosely here) that might exist in the target population that such campaigns and their future avatars must take into account:

  • The “Better Man” bias: Men in these villages might believe that they already are a much better husband, father and son than the average man in their village or the Gram Panchayat, and thus might not respond strongly to the “Responsible Man” message. This might lead to reduced participation in the program with fewer people filling in the application forms than ideal. They might then also fall prey to “mental accounting” processes and conclude that they don’t need to invest in a toilet.
  • The “Invincibility” bias: Men might believe that their wives, daughters and mothers are less likely to get harmed in the absence of a toilet than the actual likelihood of this happening in reality. This belief will reduce their propensity to act and get a toilet constructed. This “reduced threat perception” is exacerbated in this case because of such issues being taboos and many incidents going unreported. The same bias applies to situations when people feel they are extremely unlikely to fall sick (due to not having a toilet).

If some probing reveals the existence of these biases in the target population, one can design program features to tackle them in future campaigns that are replicated in other locations. While the specific features would be very context specific, a design principle that could be useful is that of comparison. For instance, the Better Man bias can be tackled by creating video clips that show men from the village talking about how they don’t think they’ve discharged their “responsibilities” till all the women in the house have a toilet. Essentially, ensuring that there is a yardstick on which cultural notions of “male responsibility” can be made visible and based on which people can situate themselves objectively and realize if and when they are not making the cut.


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