We often don’t know what we want. We look around in our social circles, and simply crave what others desire—gadgets, cars, books, movies, social causes. Marketers know this, and use it to sell us more goods. It’s increasingly getting embedded in the algorithms of Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, YouTube and other big tech firms. “We will use the actions of others to decide on proper behaviour for ourselves, especially when we view those others as similar to ourselves,” writes Robert Cialdini, who spent a lifetime studying how people get influenced. Perhaps that behaviour persists because it has helped us survive in this tough and complex world.
But, imitating others’ desires can also cause problems. Rene Girard, who drew deep insights on the human condition by studying literature, says our tendency to imitate others’ desires leads to violence. (Think of a common movie theme: two men in love with the same woman.) Imitating others’ can also land us in trouble when the contexts are very different. It’s like driving a Ferrari on Bengaluru roads. A Ferrari might have made perfect sense in the owner’s social group, but it becomes an object of mockery when it struggles to inch forward around potholes in Bengaluru traffic.
It holds true of regulations too. During a visit to Mumbai, Alex Tabarrok, a professor of economics at George Mason University, saw a sign urging people to “Avoid Using Plastic Carry Bags” when barely a block away cows and people were sleeping on the street. This led him to write a paper (with Shruti Rajagopalan) called Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State.
He writes, “We argue that one reason that India passes laws which are incongruous with its state of development is that Indian elites often take their cues about what is normal, good and desirable from Western elites. There’s nothing wrong with imitation, of course. We hope that good policies will be imitated but imitation in India is often premature. Premature because India does not have the state capacity to enforce the edicts of a developed country.”
If you look at the problem broadly as a misalignment between a solution to a problem and realities on the ground, it’s a theme that we have been covering constantly at Founding Fuel. For example, last week, my colleague CS Swaminathan stressed on the importance of “keeping the user at the centre, and also getting a good cultural understanding of the actual place where their products would be put to use.”
What’s true for product innovators is equally true for policy innovators. They have to keep one eye focused on the future, and the other on the present. One eye on the telescope, and another on the microscope.
How does one do that without getting a headache? What are your thoughts? Share with us.
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Note: This is the third public conversation in the Masterclass on TransformingSystems with Arun Maira. Access all the conversations through this link.
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[Photo from WAIC]
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