Can legislative action change the behaviour of a country?
Will the striking down of Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) change society’s attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community? 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. 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. In a study among Airbnb customers, researchers at Harvard Business School found that African Americans were 16% less likely to be accepted as guests than Caucasians. The study could not find any variable beyond race to explain this attitude.
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 in managing the behaviour of people, while most of them do not make much of an impact?
Dopamine is the brain chemical critical to its “pleasure” centres. As Susan Weinschenk writes in an article in Psychology Today, 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.
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. 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.
Duelling was outlawed in France in 1626, yet the practice continued long afterward. Mathew O. Jackson, the William D. Eberle Professor of Economics, Stanford University, says that laws against duelling were ineffective because they went against a deep-rooted norm, which also discouraged others from intervening to stop the blood-letting.
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. Research has shown that people who got acquainted with at least one gay person were more likely to later change their minds, and become more accepting of gay and lesbian people in general. Similarly, the solution to the Kashmir problem lies in the government’s ability to get ordinary Kashmiris to interact with others outside their state.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Biju Dominic is chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm