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Can Behavioural Science Help Address the Fears of Migrant Workers?

Can Behavioural Science Help Address the Fears of Migrant Workers?

As India moves into the start of the second week of the 21-day lockdown period imposed nationwide by the Government of India, it helps to examine the manner in which migrant workers have been coping with the lockdown’s requirements.

Migrant workers have been moving out of India’s cities to their respective towns villages, many of them on foot due to unavailability of transport.

According to the Economic Survey of India 2017, the magnitude of interstate migration in India was approximately 9 million per year between 2011 and 2016. The 2011 Census estimates that the total number of internal migrants in the country (accounting for interstate and intrastate movement) is 139 million. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the leading contributors, followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal.

Also according to the Census, India’s level of urbanisation increased from 27.81% in 2001 to 31.16% in 2011. Close to 81% of all employed persons in India make a living by working in the informal sector, and about 47.4% of employment in urban areas is in the informal sector. This gives us a strong indication of the sheer number of people moving out of cities and to the hinterland at this time.

A complete lockdown on the movement of people and a curb on the normal functioning of businesses, with the exception of essential products and services, means most jobs that employ much of the migrant workforce in the country have ceased to exist – at least for the time being. Most of these migrant workers were until recently engaged in jobs that paid daily wages, and they have little or no savings – almost certainly not at the level required to survive the next two weeks of the lockdown.

Behavioural change

The nationwide lockdown brings with itself expectations of changes in everyday behaviour. Behavioural research has shown that a behaviour system has three components: capability, opportunity and motivation. To arrive at a particular, desired behaviour, all three need to be addressed. Similarly, the current lockdown may be examined through the lens of these three components to reveal an individual’s degree of compliance with the expected behaviour. The model can be applied to both segments – migrants moving back to their hometowns, and those still in the big cities and contemplating returning.

Capability refers to an individual’s psychological and physical capacity to engage in an activity. It includes having the necessary knowledge and skills to participate in the lockdown. Those workers heading back to their hometowns, of course, have the physical capacity to stay put, but of their psychological alignment?

Psychology research has shown that deep uncertainty tends to intensify three types of biases: negativity, availability and confirmation. Negativity bias is the human tendency to register and dwell on negative stimuli more readily than on positive stimuli. Availability bias is a mental shortcut that makes one think that instances/thoughts that readily come to mind are the most representative (than the actual case may be). Finally, confirmation bias allows one to interpret new stimulus/information/evidence as confirming one’s existing beliefs.

A labourer wearing a mask carries a crate of vegetables during India’s 21-day nationwide lockdown, March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

As migrant workers throng some of the arterial roads in the country in search of means of travelling home, with word-of-mouth and social media-driven content as the main source of information, negativity bias makes the mind focus on the negative tenor of news around the COVID-19 situation. There is no denying that many of these workers are out of jobs, and this heightens availability bias since it is difficult (if not impossible) to shift attention from their current situation.

And, then there is emotion. Under situations of uncertainty and stress, the human mind tends to undertake decisions ruled by emotions, because it is unable to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the situation at hand. The domination of emotion over cognitive processes may lead to situations that spiral out of control, leading to behaviour that is easy to term as “irresponsible” and “unthinking” on part of the actors. The motivation to comply with the requirements of the lockdown is likely to be low.

Opportunity is the set of factors that lie outside the individual that make the behaviour possible or prompt one to comply with the requirements of staying where they are. What are some of these factors that are likely to allay the fears of doom that dominate much of the emotions that people are currently experiencing?

Affecting behaviour change

The very basic factor is physiological. Remember Maslow? The hierarchy of needs moves from physiological to self-actualisation, with safety, belonging and esteem as the intervening stages of the hierarchy. Questions regarding physiological requirements of food, water and shelter abound in the minds of the migrant workers who are seeking to move out. To what extent are they assured of these requirements? Safety needs (where the question of health comes in) are likely to felt by the migrant worker only when the physiological ones are met.

To assuage the fears that migrant workers are likely experiencing at times of such uncertainty, their physiological needs should also be met. At the same time, encouraging them to focus on the immediate requirement of complying with the lockdown and the positive outcomes associated with following the government’s directives (instead of dwelling on the long-term negative outcomes), are possible options that may lead to a greater likelihood of compliance.

Addressing this requires that the state and local authorities take some out-of-the-box measures. State and local governments need to immediately focus on the migrants who may now be back in their hometowns and may inadvertently spread the virus. A combination of education, persuasion and coercion techniques are likely to become extremely critical in the days to come. A general tendency of people coming in to meet someone back from a city would have to be curtailed. Continuous education around social distancing and personal hygiene in hometowns becomes very important. Keeping the local population (including returning migrants) motivated, emotionally positive and meaningfully engaged is paramount for local district officials.

Crisis communication at the ground level becomes the need of the hour. State and local governments are already fighting the war against the novel coronavirus at multiple fronts and use of behavioural science principles may help them develop and `execute the right set of strategies.

Moutusy Maity is a professor of marketing management; Vinish Kathuria is managing partner at SenseAI Ventures and a research scholar – both at IIM Lucknow.

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