The new World Development Report (on mind, society and behavior): lots to like, but a big fail on power, politics and religion

December 16, 2014 8 By Duncan Green

This probably doesn’t need saying, but the World Development Report is a big deal. The World Bank’s annual flagships have a track record of shaping debates on WDR-2015-book-coverparticular issues, and raising them up the endlessly churning development agenda. So it pays to pay attention.

This year’s WDR, published this month, is on ‘Mind, Society and Behaviour’. I (like most people) have only read the 20 page overview, not the tome on which it is based, (but if I miss anything, that’s the Bank’s fault for not including it where it matters!).

So what does it say? Drawing heavily on the work of Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunsteain (Nudge), the report pulls together a pretty seismic challenge to business/economics-as-usual:

‘Paying attention to how humans think (the processes of mind) and how history and context shape thinking (the influence of society) can improve the design and implementation of development policies and interventions that target human choice and action (behavior). To put it differently, development policy is due for its own redesign based on careful consideration of human factors.’

The report sets out the kinds of questions it thinks behavioural economics can help with:

‘Can simplifying the enrollment process for financial aid increase participation? Can changing the timing of fertilizer purchases to coincide with harvest earnings increase the rate of use? Can providing a role model change a person’s opinion of what is possible in life and what is “right” for a society? Can marketing a social norm of safe driving reduce accident rates? Can providing information about the energy consumption of neighbors induce individuals to conserve? As this Report will argue, the answers provided by new insights into human factors in cognition and decision making are a resounding yes.’

The underlying purpose is to ‘help people make better decisions.’

Here’s the report’s Co-Director, Varun Guari, summarizing it all in 2.5 minutes

From its survey of the literature (and a treasure trove of case studies) the WDR identifies three principles:

‘First, people make most judgments and most choices automatically, not deliberatively: we call this “thinking automatically.” Second, how people act and think often depends on what others around them do and think: we call this “thinking socially.” Third, individuals in a given society share a common perspective on making sense of the world around them and understanding themselves: we call this “thinking with mental models.”

These principles, in passing, highlight the importance of targeting social norms (something I’m increasingly focusing on) and add one very large nail to the coffin of rational expectations/homo economicus – the assumed genius number cruncher at the heart of much of neoclassical economics. It turns out that in real life, people do not spend hours processing all available information before deciding whether to buy bread or coca cola. Well duh.

A lot of the conclusions echo the kinds of thinking going on in the Doing Development Differently and Thinking and Working Politically networks:

Small bets and multiple experiments: ‘development practice requires an iterative process of discovery and learning, which in turn implies spreading resources (time, money, and expertise) over several cycles of design, implementation, and evaluation.’ (see the diagram for a new improved project cycle)

WDR 2015 project cyclePower Within and Strengths-based approaches: ‘invoking positive identities can counteract stereotypes and raise aspirations. Having individuals contemplate their own strengths has led to higher academic achievement among at-risk minorities in the United States, to greater interest in antipoverty programs among poor people, and to an increase in the probability of finding a job among the unemployed in the United Kingdom.’

A critique of the power and prejudices of aid professionals:  ‘Although 42 percent of Bank staff predicted that most poor people in Nairobi, Kenya, would agree with the statement that “vaccines are risky because they can cause sterilization,” only 11 percent of the poor people sampled actually agreed with the statement. This finding suggests that development professionals may assume that poor individuals may be less autonomous, less responsible, less hopeful, and less knowledgeable than they in fact are. Beliefs like these about the context of poverty shape policy choices. It is important to check mental models of poverty against reality.’

All thoroughly excellent and engrossing, but as I read through the overview, I could feel alarm bells clanging ever-louder. The Nudge authors were quite open that what they were suggesting was ‘benign paternalism’ – governments getting better at manipulating people’s choices for their own good. The report has that same flavour – for all its talk of human fallibility, the underlying assumption is still that ‘we’ know best (if you don’t believe me, listen to the video again). In the overall purpose of ‘helping people make better decisions’, there is no suggestion that someone other than technocrats should be defining what constitutes ‘better’.

That seems to lead to a focus on tweaks rather than transformation – shades of The Leopard and ‘everything must change so that everything can stay the same’ – look again at that list of questions the report seeks to answer – they’re important but hardly earth-shaking.

And what if the behaviour-shapers are not benign? There is no acknowledgement of the potential Orwellian dark side of new improved behavioural manipulation – using stigma to blame individuals for systemic problems, or an external enemy to generate patriotic support for a repressive government.

And there is no acknowledgement of the importance of power and politics in (mis)shaping ‘mind, society and behaviour’: here are some of the words that returned a zero count on a wordsearch of the 20 page overview text (excluding references): Power, politics, religion, faith, gender, women. Sorry, there was one reference to women. Read that list again, and ask yourselves how you can write a massive study of ‘mind, society and behaviour’ that ignores all of them.

And I fear the WDR has form on this – take a development issue that is dripping with power, politics and struggle, then technocratize it into a set of best practice guidelines for tweaks-not-transformation in an often-imaginary world of benign decision makers. Sorry, not good enough.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it – just be aware of what is missing, as well as what is in there.

And here’s Ben Ramalingam’s rave review, Martin Wolf in the FT and the inevitable summary infographic.

WDR 2015 Inforgraphic