There has been much commotion in Beirut in recent months over the installation of a network of radars on Lebanon’s roads. Though not a new endeavor in the region, this certainly presents an interesting case study on the unique social features of Middle Eastern society and how governments seek to regulate the behavior of citizens.
Within Lebanon, the presence of these radars has deterred most people from speeding, and a testament to its effectiveness has been the drop in the number of fatalities by almost half, according to the interior ministry. This method of regulation is contingent on a fear of punishment as people are coerced into a change in behavior, begging the question of whether this approach is the most effective method to dissuade society from adopting a certain behavior.
The carrot beats the stick
Governments have always used legislation and regulations to create the boundaries of legally acceptable behavior. If an individual crosses that line, they are punished accordingly.
This relies on two assumptions: First, that the general public will be dissuaded from committing such an act because they are too afraid of the consequences; and second, if the act is committed, they will not be able to get away with it because effective enforcement will ensure that the law is upheld. If the radars were removed, would everyone continue to drive in the same restrained manner? Of course not.
This suggests that attempts to make real changes to behaviour only through fear are futile. Methods that rely on incentives are likely to fail in producing something sustainable. The answer may be in combining such methods with an appreciation and understanding of the damage that negative behavior, such as speeding, causes society. More efforts should thus be targeted at influencing the underlying attitude that leads to this behavior, complementing coercion and reward with persuasion.
In 2007 the government of New South Wales launched an anti-speeding communication campaign to discourage young drivers from speeding. It suggested that young men who speed had limited sexual prowess, effectively debunking the belief, through ridicule, that speeding attracts the attention of the opposite sex. The campaign succeeded in changing behavior and encouraging young men to slow down, as demonstrated by the figures that showed fatalities caused by young drivers speeding decreased by 45 percent over the following year.
It seems obvious that communicating to the general public with the aim of shaping attitudes and beliefs can produce more sustainable results for governments than a one-sided threat of punishment. Although this approach requires more patience and carefully thought out effort, the change at the attitudinal level is more cost effective for society. For example, problems such as heart disease can be dealt with through medication and surgery, but the costs of such measures on society are greater than efforts aimed at encouraging people to adopt healthier lifestyles.
Shaping behavior through successful persuasive communication demands a nuanced and insightful understanding of local mindsets, norms of interaction and culture. Only through a deep-seated appreciation of cultural idiosyncrasies can one develop effective messages that resonate and identify the delivery channels that strike the right cord with the target audience.
Getting the word out
The government of Sweden put in place a ‘Vision Zero Initiative’, which sets targets for road safety by 2020. The campaign is a holistic effort that combines infrastructure and regulatory changes with communication efforts aimed at demonstrating government dedication. The main message behind their communication efforts has been to shape attitudes toward road safety by reinforcing a neglected reality, namely that human beings die whilst driving. To deliver this message to as wide an audience as possible, they proceeded to develop a communication campaign that entailed a series of initiatives such as a website, a brochure, a Facebook page, and even a Vision Zero Academy aimed at improving road safety.
Private sector initiatives have also constituted an important source for novel ideas. “The Fun Theory” initiative developed by Volkswagen is an example that tried to change people’s behavior through, simply, fun.
Contestants were asked to submit ideas that would motivate people to change certain behaviors because they would enjoy doing so, not because they were afraid of the consequences. In 2010, the winner proposed “The Speed Camera Lottery”, the goal of which was to get more people to obey the speed limit by giving positive incentives. Instead of having traditional radars only taking pictures of drivers who were speeding, this camera would also take pictures of those within the speed limit and enter them in a lottery funded by the money generated through speeding tickets. Volkswagen subsequently developed a communication campaign around this idea; testing in the first three days following the launch showed a reduction of 22 percent in average speed.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”Governments need to take this to heart. They cannot assume that their policy efforts will achieve sustainable results without coupling them with coherent communication initiatives.
A persuasive approach does not exclude coercive or incentive-based methods; it merely proposes a means to amplify their effectiveness through the use of communication to shape attitudes.
It is time for all governments to realize that understanding the belief behind the behavior could become the shortest path to changing it.