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.
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.
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.