Ideas drawn from nudge theory could weaken a third covid wave

Source: Live mint 

Relevance: This article highlights the importance and effectiveness of behavioral interventions to bring about social change.


Well-designed behavioral interventions that guide people to make safe choices could potentially help India in the fight against pandemic. The use of nudge theory will help in combating vaccine hesitancy and lockdown fatigue. Thereby it will ensure greater vaccination and Covid appropriate behavior in the country. 

  • India is augmenting the availability of medical supplies and healthcare infrastructure across the country in order to combat the 3rd wave of Covid 19.
  • But the experience of other countries (Italy in April 2020, the UK in January 2021) shows that virus can cripple even the most well-equipped health systems. Once a wave emerges, it can quickly spiral into chaos.
  • Therefore, initiatives to bolster India’s healthcare infrastructure must be accompanied by actions to reduce the intensity of the wave itself. 
Reducing the intensity of waves:
  • India should focus on two key actions – administering vaccines and enforcing covid appropriate behavior until a substantial share of the population has been inoculated.
  • However, two obstacles will hinder the actions: Vaccine hesitancy and lockdown fatigue. Across the world, these two remain especially wicked problems—hard to break down, harder yet to solve. 
  • Nonetheless, these hindrances can be tackled using behavioral economics—specifically, the nudge theory.
About Nudge Theory:
  • Nudges are subtle interventions that help people make better decisions without restricting their choices.
    • For instance, the UK moved from a sign-up to an opt-out process for pension accounts in 2012. This simple change-induced more than 10 million people in the country to save for their retirement.
  • Nudge units are entities that work with governments to apply behavioral science to public policy. They help in formulation of effective nudging strategies as every detail counts: Text, visuals, colours, font size, placement, and communication channel.
    • Visuals: McKinsey’s research indicates that images of non-smokers playing with their grandchildren on cigarette packs can deter smokers more effectively than images of damaged lungs.
  • Nudges can be dramatically cost-effective. For instance, Virgin Atlantic famously spent only about $2,500 on a nudging intervention that helped it save $5.5 million in airline fuel costs over 8 months in 2014.
  • To be successful, nudges must effectively speak to the cultural and socioeconomic realities of their target audience.
  • Many countries have used them both before and during the pandemic to drive behavioural change at scale.

Use of Nudge Theory in tackling the Pandemic:

  • Last year’s ‘Happy Birthday’ sing-along nudge helped millions wash their hands long enough to make them virus-free. 
  • Similarly, many nudge units are now running studies to discover which nudges might help overcome vaccine hesitancy.
    • A recent study in Colombia by the UK’s nudge unit indicated the potential to increase vaccination numbers by 2.4 million or nearly 5% of that country’s population. 
    • For this, messages should be sent to people that countered their concerns about vaccine safety or appealed to their deep psychological needs.

How to use Nudge theory in India for tackling the Pandemic?

  • The project should be anchored by an independent team of experts convened by the center. This includes behavioural economists, neuroscientists, design thinking experts, researchers, digital marketers, etc.
  • Considering time will be of the essence, this team will need to be agile. It should add new capabilities and partners as it progresses. 
    • Further, it should adhere to a sprint approach: rapidly prototyping, testing, refining and then deploying the most promising solutions.
  • Given its scale, the effort would need all hands on deck. 
    • Telecom and e-commerce companies could provide a platform to directly connect with large sections of the population; 
    • Large media spenders could amplify messages; 
    • Social-sector organizations could work on grassroots activation; 
    • Influencers could power viral social media outreach; 
    • India Inc could provide the required tech infrastructure.

If successful, this effort could sow the seeds for the creation of India’s own nudge unit. In the long term, this unit could recommend and implement interventions to solve many complicated developmental challenges faced by our nation.

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