Systems & Incentives: Changing the Mindset of a People


On the Jabi highway, I saw a man nearly get hit by a car while attempting to cross. He was Jaywalking. Angry at how he nearly got hit, I blamed him for being so carefree with his life; until I looked around and realized there was no pedestrian bridge along the highway. I’ve seen such an incident happen almost every time I’ve been on that highway. And it made me consider the link between systems, behavior, and incentives. Such a link explains the creation of incentives and disincentives explain a couple of bad behaviors that Nigerians routinely display and what makes these behaviors hard to break.

First, let’s establish the relationship between incentives, systems and the formation of behaviors. Systems create incentives and incentives lead to behavior. Behavior can be molded by the incentives & disincentives one places around it. From childhood, systems are created that determine the incentives or disincentives we follow. If you’re a Nigerian, you’re probably familiar with one of such systems: flogging. (Let’s not get into the politics or sentimentality of flogging. Whether it’s right, wrong or effective, it carries a definite disincentive) Once you’re aware that the system of flogging is present, the system acts as a disincentive to engage in bad behavior, such as stealing meat from the pot or money from your mom’s bag. However, such a system has to be constant and repeatable in order for it to effectively influence behavior. I’m assuming you didn’t get a lollipop one week and a wallop the next week for the same bad behavior.

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I bet she came back to a clean room

This system’s called Pavlov conditioning. In his experiment, Pavlov used a bell as his neutral stimulus. Whenever he gave food to his dogs, he also rang a bell. The dogs would salivate at the sight of the food. After a number of repeats of this procedure, he tried the bell on its own. As you might expect, the bell on its own now caused an increase in salivation. The dog had learned an association between the bell and the food and a new behavior had been learnt. In Pavlov’s case, the system was the bell, the incentive was the food and the behavior was the salivation of the dogs.

As illustrated by the experiment, behavior and incentives are greatly tied to each other- as tight as a woman would hold her bag in a crowded Lagos market. However, the important lesson from this post is that systems are only as effective as their timing and their repeatability. Given that systems work effectively based on timing and repeatability, it’s easy to see why behavioral breakdowns occur in Nigeria. Many systems in Nigeria don’t work effectively enough to provide the right incentives and engender the right behaviors.

Let’s start with the guy crossing the road. The Government built a road, but failed to provide any pedestrian bridge. So the only incentive an individual has not to cross the road is absent from the outset. After crossing the road several times over the course of his life, (and of course surviving) crossing the road becomes a behavior of his. So even when a pedestrian bridge is built, this behavior remains a part of the man. He will still prefer to cross the road rather than use the safer pedestrian bridge. In Psychology terms, the initial lack of a pedestrian bridge has ‘conditioned’ him into dangerously crossing the road.

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That Sign Seems to Be Working..

Urinating in public is another unsavory behavior. Not a day goes by that I do not get to see a random stranger show off his shooting/aiming ability in public. Such a behavior stems from the lack of a system. If clean, working public toilets were available, the incentive to urinate in public would be lower. Public toilets influences people’s behavior by creating an incentive not to urinate in public.

Next is our behavior with trash. We snack on Gala and Coke and proceed to throw the remnants on the floor. In no society should such acts be normal, but yet it happens every second in Nigeria. It has become so normal that we do it unconsciously. And unfortunately, such actions are due to an ineffective system. The lack of bins at pivotal places reduces the incentive to properly throw trash away. Instead, it creates a very appealing excuse to trash the ground. At this point, people have become conditioned to throwing away things on the ground instead of bins.

All the previous examples lead to the biggest behavior that we all harp about in Nigeria: corruption. Corruption in Nigeria remains high because a system was never created to produce the right incentives and disincentives. For example, say death by hanging was the consequence of corrupt practices from the onset of the nation; Abuja would have less mansions and Range Rovers. Unfortunately, the reverse system has been created, so by the time corruption becomes ‘conditioned’ in Nigerians, it’ll be too late to introduce a system that can effectively change incentives and stop corrupt behaviors.

So in the end, what am I trying to say? Many of the problems that plague Nigeria were due to inaction in the early days of the country. The lack of a system created incentives and behaviors that have massive negative externalities. How do you ‘uncondition’ the mind of people and put in place the right incentives that lead to the right behaviors? I can’t give all the answers to that, but I’d wager that building a pedestrian bridge across the highway might be a good place to start.

  • Amazing piece. I find this to be really true. Clearly after I’d gotten spanked severally for lying as a kid, I had to stop. The spanking was a good disincentive. Where we lack a system that works, people just do as they please, especially when they know that there are no heavy consequences for their actions.
    Yes, the government may have failed to create the right incentives for us to do all things right, but I believe we can on our own decided to do as many things right as often as we can. We might not be able to build pedestrian bridges, but we could try to keep our trash till we get to a suitable place to dispose of them. We could also decide that making a good name for ourselves is far better than amassing all the wealth in the world and so choose to stay away from corrupt practices.
    Really brilliant piece. Cheers

  • Reblogged this on joshfol global services.

  • I love this; especially the illustrations! I have had to address issues along these lines. Sometimes it takes a good measure of discipline to recondition ourselves to make the right decisions regardless of government’s failure to provide the right incentives.

  • Emmanuel Usman Bassi

    “Our attitudes control our lives. Attitudes are a secret power working twenty-four hours a day, for good or bad. It is of paramount importance that we know how to harness and control this great force. It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” The major problem we have as a country is lawlessness, indiscipline and illiteracy. Until we develop our attitudes towards addressing these problems, we can only wish and pray for change.
    Thank you enjoy your posts always.

  • I couldn’t agree more. The government’s lack of provision of proper incentive & disincentive is not an excuse to be reckless. The nation is lawless, what do you expect from citizens if lawmakers & law enforcement agencies break the law!. Another very common behavior that I dislike so much is that of throwing trash out the window of a moving vehicle. Funny cause I used to do it till my Uncle cautioned me. Now when I have trash, I keep it till I find a suitable place to properly dispose of it. Wonderful piece!. More power to your elbow.

  • Great one Chuba. Like how you use simplicity to make a great point.

    As someone said: “People respond to incentives”. And Economics seeks to empirically prove this

    I disagree with the commenter who said:
    “Yes, the government may have failed to create the right incentives for us to do all things right, but I believe we can on our own decided to do as many things right as often as we can “.

    People do things that are most easy for them. There are very few people who would do the right thing if there were no negative consequence. Most people are driven by greed (maybe it is not such a bad thing within confines of societal laws). Hence, the corruption and gross incompetence seen in government knowing there are no consequences.

    Of course there are the people who would seek to do the right thing, but they have been thought and consequence of doing wrong has been reinforced. For majority of us, we are just humans – there has to be carrots and sticks to keep us right.

  • Engr Temitope

    @Chuba….a very 9ce piece. After digesting and regurgitating severally on this innovative write up of yours, I’ve started working (though I am not a writer) working on how these three things affect production or output in the construction industry. Something I’ve been working on for a while now but in your piece I’ve been able to get what ve been looking for…pls kindly follow @slikystunnz….God bless

  • Danjuma crown

    The main problem plaguing our country Nigeria , is indiscipline .
    Leaders are meant to be emulated as the natural order goes .
    Our leaders exhibit indiscipline in the highest regard to their followers
    from the dis-regard of traffic laws ( very common in the east of Nigeria)
    to the embezzling of funds set out to help achieve a goal ( a very common practice in Nigeria) .
    These leaders make indiscipline attractive .