[op-ed snap of the day] Can legislative action change the behaviour of a country?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not Much

Mains level : Effect of law in bringing behaviour change


Behavior change

  • Will the passing of the triple talaq bill change the status of Muslim women in this country?
  • Will the abrogation of Article 370 make Kashmiris emotionally closer to India?
  • Will the dramatic increase in fines under the amended Motor Vehicles Act, 2019, change our driving behaviour?
  • There are many instances when legislative action has been an utter failure in changing the behaviour of a nation.

A myth

  • Attempts to make citizens stop drinking alcohol by introducing prohibition have failed across the world, from the US to the Indian states of Gujarat and Kerala.
  • Every time a law tried to curb alcohol consumption, consumption disappeared from the mainstream of society to its underbelly.
  • This created even bigger problems for the state.
  • Several laws have been passed in the US to end racial discrimination. Despite these, discrimination based on race is still a reality in that country.

With few successes

  • But there are also cases where legislation has gone on to create fundamental changes in social behaviour.
  • Several measures, including health warnings, were used to curtail smoking.
  • But one factor that has demonstrably contributed to a sustained decline in smoking was a ban on it in public places.
  • One of the first pieces of legislation to curb smoking in public places followed an order of the Kerala high court, way back in 1999.

Why are some laws effective?

  • Dopamine is the brain chemical critical to its “pleasure” centres.
  • Dopamine makes us feel enjoyment and pleasure, thereby motivating us to seek out pleasurable experiences such as sex, drugs, food and speed.
  • This reward system doesn’t have satiety built in. So, it is not easy for any legislative action to curtail this pleasure-seeking behaviour initiated by the brain’s dopamine release system.
  • That is why, despite the combined effort of all organized religions and governments for thousands of years, harmful behaviour related to sex and alcohol continues unabated.

Biases are undeterred

  • Cognitive biases are short cuts the brain takes to go about its day-to-day affairs.
  • But some of these systematic deviations tend to create a tendency or prejudice toward or against something or someone.
  • Many of the biases are implicit and escape conscious detection.

Limitations of legislations

  • It is almost impossible for legislation to erase deep-rooted biases about race, gender, ethnicity, etc.
  • So, legislation alone will not be enough to create equality for women, especially when it comes to issues involving religion.
  • Several other behavioural interventions will have to be introduced in organizations and society to achieve gender parity.

Going beyond legislation

  • To change social norms, we need interventions beyond legislation.
  • There has been a greater transformation of attitudes towards gay rights in the past 30 years in the US than there has ever been in recorded attitudes on any other issue.
  • This dramatic shift did not happen because of any legislation, but the knowledge that someone within one’s personal world—family or friends’ circle— may have this sexual orientation.
  • Similarly, the solution to the Kashmir problem lies in the government’s ability to get ordinary Kashmiris to interact with others outside their state.

Prejudice is not behaviour

  • Driving is an activity that is done in a public space.
  • Most driving-related violations of rules, like not wearing a helmet or seat belt, are not the result of any deep-rooted brain processes.
  • Over speeding is the only exception. So the attempt of the government to mitigate such behaviour through a drastic increase in fines has a high chance of success, provided it is implemented well.

Still laws are indispensable

  • Legislation has a higher chance of success when it is trying to manage a public behaviour.
  • Many a time, an individual’s action in a public place can have an impact on others too.
  • This wider impact of an individual’s action on the larger society can be used as a valid excuse to instil more responsibility in the individual’s action.
  • The success of the ban on public smoking can be attributed to this facet.

Stringent laws serve such purpose

  • Humans tend to make judgements on whether to engage in a prohibited activity based on the expected cost of that behaviour.
  • If the severity and probability of punishment exceed the expected benefit or pleasure of the act, then the actor will refrain from that behaviour.
  • Now that the law has been amended, the fines for bad behaviour are steep enough to cause significant pain to the offender.
  • With stricter traffic policing, the likelihood of getting caught and punished goes up as well.
  • In all, the loss caused by stiff fines is likely to leave a deep imprint on the memory of the offender. This will surely deter future offences.

Towards a more law abiding society

  • This particular legislation has another benefit too.
  • The very sight of all two-wheeler riders on the road wearing helmets will form a vivid image of India taking an important step towards becoming a more law-abiding society.
  • This will have cascading impact on other spheres of society too.
  • India has a golden opportunity to initiate broad behaviourial changes across the country, one that must not be missed.
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