woensdag 21 oktober 2015

Two newspaper articles and some behavioural insights on traffic safety and postnatal depression

Yesterday, two articles took most of the front and the back page of my daily newspaper. Both struck my mind, as the central message they convey is so fundamentally at odds with one of the central current insights with respect to the effect of (implicit) social norms on behaviour.
On the front page of the paper, the Belgian federal minister of transport launched a broad call for citizin participation in the development of new approaches to traffic safety. The central message as represented in the newspaper was: our current policies fail in further reducing the number of fatal accidents, and the current repressive top-down approach should be complemented with a bottom-up approach, as 90% of the accidents are due to human errors.
On the back page, we learned that a new law has been voted that will introduce  systematic screening of pregnant women (or women who have just given birth) for (potential) postnatal depression.
It is a pity that these policy makers and their advisers have not read "Inside the nudge unit', David Halpern's fascinating account of how systematic thinking about human behaviour has improved public policy, with tangible (if, globally speaking, modest) benefits.
One of the central lessons learned over the years is that human beings are extremely conformist, and that their behaviour is heavily influenced by (what they think is) their reference group's norms and behaviour. Now, one of the surprises is that these perceptions are heavily biased by the salience of the behaviour of others. For instance, students think that other students drink much more (and study less) than they actually do, because it is the drinking that is the most salient behaviour (and not the studying).
Why is this relevant for traffic safety and postnatal depression? Well, research has also shown that, the more policy makers talk about a problem, the more people perceive this problem to be the norm, and the more they will adapt their behaviour accordingly. Of course, what I say now is speculative, but I would submit that a traffic safety campaign that emphasizes that most people do drive carefully (and that careful driving is thus the norm) would be more effective than a minister saying in public that the problem is so hopeless that she needs a public consultation to find solution to it (with one caveat: this would only work in countries where most people do indeed drive responsibly).
And what about postnatal depression? Well, of course, commercial advertising constantly shows us perfectly clean, perfectly behaving and perfectly happy children (at least, if you dress them with the right clothes and feed them with the right cereals, and drive them around in the right minivan), so some balance was probably welcome. But now policy makers are sending the signal that postnatal depression is, well maybe not exactly the norm, but at least a risk that is lurking behind every  pregnancy. Guess what? My guess is that the effect will be an increase in the number of reported postnatal depressions, and not only because monitoring will have improved.
So what would the right message to convey here? Well, I suppose the simple truth: raising children is not a cakewalk. But who told you anything in life is? But behavioural research has also shown that people report that having raised children was among the most meaningful activities in their lives. And that does not depend on the brand of cereals you feed them with.