Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Can legislative action change the behaviour of a country?

Laws aimed at managing public behaviour do work but modifying social norms would call for other forms of intervention.
By IASToppers
September 23, 2019


  • Introduction
  • Failed attempts of legislative action
  • Legislation creating fundamental changes in social behaviour
  • Why are some laws effective in managing the behaviour of people while some not?
  • Successful change in people’s attitude
  • Suggestion
  • Conclusion

Can legislative action change the behaviour of a country?

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  • According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, over 200 institutions around the world are applying behavioural insights to public policy.

egislative action change the behaviour of a country

  • Over the last few years, it has been observed that even the most well-intentioned public policy programmes fail to be adopted by people who would benefit from them the most.
  • In India, for instance, despite access to toilets, open defecation remains a huge challenge.

Failed attempts of legislative action

  • There are many instances when legislative action has been a failure in changing the behaviour of a nation.
  • For instance, 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 prevailing in US.

Example of Duelling

  • Duelling is a prearranged combat between two persons, fought with deadly weapons, especially to settle a private quarrel.


  • Duelling was outlawed in France in 1626, yet the practice continued long afterward.
  • Laws against duelling were ineffective because they went against a deep-rooted norm, which also discouraged others from intervening to stop the blood-letting.

Why are some laws effective in managing the behaviour of people while some are not?


  • Dopamine is the chemical in the body that send signals to other nerve cells and mediates pleasure in the brain.


  • Dopamine makes us feel enjoyment and pleasure, thereby motivating us to seek out pleasurable experiences such as drugs, food and speed.
  • As legislative action cannot control dopamine level, despite the effort of organized religions and governments for thousands of years, harmful behaviour related to sex and alcohol continues unabated.

Cognitive biases

  • Cognitive bias is a limitation in thinking that is caused by the tendency for the human brain to perceive information through a filter of personal experience and preferences.
  • 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.

Successful change in people’s attitude

Increasing familiarity 

  • 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 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.

Instilling more public responsibility

  • 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 to instil more responsibility in the individual’s action.
  • The success of the ban on public smoking can be attributed to this facet. One of the first pieces of legislation to curb smoking in public places followed an order of the Kerala high court, in 1999.
  • Driving is an activity that is done in a ‘public’ space. Hence, the attempt of the government to mitigate such behaviour through a drastic increase in fines has a high chance of success.

Measuring benefit against cost

  • Humans tend to make judgements on whether to engage in a prohibited activity based on the expected cost of that behaviour.
  • If the severity of punishment exceeds the expected benefit, then the actor will refrain from that behaviour.
  • Now after the motor vehicle amendment act, the fines for bad behaviour are steep enough to cause significant pain to the offender.
  • In all, the loss caused by stiff fines is likely to leave a deep imprint on the memory of the offender. This will surely reduce future offences.
  • Moreover, 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.

Other schemes

  • Among the successful programmes to introduce behavioural change was the Ujjwala scheme, which sought to move from incandescent to LED bulbs to promote energy efficiency.
  • Another example was the subsidy “Give It Up” campaign, under which the government encouraged above poverty line households to voluntarily surrender their LPG subsidies.


First Step

  • There is need to first analyse social norms across India.
  • For instance, analysis of popular rituals, like keeping a baby away from the ground in a cot (palna), or marking decorations around her hearth (chulah) in Bihar.

Second Step

  • Behavioural science can be applied to large-scale programmes.
  • For instance, PENN SoNG, a private research company, is collating the analyses of core social motivators for open defecation and related behaviours in Tamil Nadu and Bihar.

Third Step

  • Interventions that are designed using this science can reduce the intent-to-action gap.
  • There are lots of tools like reminders, prompts, and incentives that can reduce poor adherence and increase compliance.
  • For example, Kilkari, a mobile service by the government that delivers free, weekly audio messages about pregnancy, childbirth and childcare directly to families’ mobile phones.

Fourth Step

  • Data collected from a behavioural insights approach can be used for better management of programme performances.
  • Rigorous evaluation of behaviour is often missed while measuring programme performances, and often this missing data can help explain the limited impact of government programmes.
  • The work done by the Ministry of Rural Development, on monitoring the implementation of national flagship schemes through DISHA dashboards, can be leveraged for evaluating behavioural change on the ground.


  • People’s choices are not rational but determined by a far more complex set of psychological, cognitive and behavioural factors.
  • Understanding these barriers will lead to recalibration of public policy design. In this context, India has a golden opportunity to initiate broad behavioural changes across the country.
  • Behavioural economics provides insights to ‘nudge’ people towards desirable behaviour. IN India, the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) have successfully employed behavioural insights.
  • Through such learnings, Government aims to transform social change from BBBP to BADLAV (Beti Aapki Dhan Lakshmi Aur Vijay Lakshmi), from Swachh Bharat to Sundar Bharat, from “Give it up” for the LPG subsidy to “Think about the Subsidy”; and from tax evasion to tax compliance.


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