Kriti Chouhan – Busara Center for Behavioral Economics

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Hi, I’m Kriti Chouhan, I’m a Senior Associate at Busara Centre for Behavioural Economics, which is a global research and advisory organisation, designing and providing solutions to some of the social and development problems worldwide. We’re also trying to advance the pursuit of behavioural science in the Global South.

My background is in Economics, I did my Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Kamla Nehru College, University of Delhi, and then went on to do my Master’s in Economics from University College London. Post that I worked for a couple of years in the development sector but not in behavioural science, after which I moved to Busara and have been working in the behavioural science space for the last three and a half years. 

What motivated you to pursue Behavioural Economics?

So this goes way back, it started from my economics classes in college when I distinctly remember reading about these modes in microeconomics which were all based on this one assumption that humans are rational and all they want to do is maximise their utility, minimise cost, etc. And as a 19-20 year-old student I knew there was something wrong with that approach because the cost would not be the only thing I factor in while making decisions. So that’s where I think it stemmed from. Having read books like ‘Nudge’ and ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, I think the last straw was this interesting finding we arrived at while working at my last organisation, that it’s not your income or expenditure which accurately predicts whether you return loans or not but instead your cognitive barriers and your psychological profile which do. 

Could you tell us about the organization(s) you work with and your role within it?

Busara is a behavioural science research and advisory organisation, with the mission of advancing the pursuit of behavioural science, especially in the Global South. We work with governments, non-profits, with philanthropies in a wide variety of sectors like Health, Education, Governance, Climate and Sustainability, etc. But our approach remains the same, to look at each problem with a behavioural lens and go beyond the structural challenges, but look at what cognitive challenges are preventing people from adopting a desired behaviour. Based on this, we then use human-centred designs and experimentally test these solutions before rolling them out. My role as a Senior Associate really is to oversee the management of each project that I am a part of, the day-to-day of the project, and to make sure that it’s running smoothly to deliver the objectives.

Could you share with us some of the behavioural intervention projects you have worked on where you saw tangible changes?

One of the projects we worked on in 2019 was in Kenya, where we were trying to encourage parents of young girls to take out the HPV vaccine for their daughters. So we started with trying to understand the behavioural barriers and motivators that prevent/enable parents to take up the vaccine, and then we designed two buckets of interventions. For example, one of the experiments was to test out which behavioural framing of messages motivates parents the most – positive framing, loss or fear framing, or social norms framing. We tested this out and very interestingly found that instead of the loss-framing, the positive framing did really well in the Kenyan context. We also went back to the parents to figure out why this happened, and it was because they could relate more to the identity of being ‘protectors’ for their children which motivated them. In another experiment, we found that it’s very important for health-related messages to come from professional health workers to have more impact. These results were actually taken off by the Government of Kenya then to design their vaccine campaigns. This was one project where we could show the value of behavioural science and how it can help in improving something like vaccine uptake. 

In India particularly, our team has been working on this project with the Foundational for Ecological Society to use behavioural science in designing better tools surrounding natural resource management which can be adopted by communities, and in making the user experience with these tools better. In this project particularly, the various social structures have been interesting and challenging to navigate – not just the accessibility of technology, but also the social and gender norms which determine ownership of technology and attitudes towards natural resources management. 

Throughout your career, have specific points about using Behavioural Economics stood out as being particularly enjoyable or surprising to you?

Something that I found particularly enjoyable was realizing, fairly recently actually, how when we talk about behavioural science, the first thing that comes to our mind are individuals, but when you see behavioural science projects, they are often on the demand side of the solution. What I have realised is that we often ignore the supply side, because we forget to unpack if the provider of the solution can actually sustainably implement them. And if this happens, the solutions that we’re recommending will fall flat. So this is something I have realised and learned – not to have a very myopic view and design behavioural science solutions only for the demand side – the communities – but to have infrastructurally supported solutions. 

Have there been challenges that you faced whilst trying to incorporate Behavioural Economics in your work?

So one of the major challenges encountered while working in behavioural science in a country like India, where the appetite for behavioural science is low and the field is just picking up, is to get that buy-in from a funder, the government or a stakeholder like that, and really show the value of behavioural science. 

Secondly, more than a challenge I believe there’s learning attached to working with diverse communities – context is really the key. This is something we, at Busra, believe in. Even within one country, even within the same region, people think very differently about family planning and very differently about savings. So you can’t copy-paste the solutions, you have to keep going back to the drawing board and try to diagnose the problems before you can actually recommend anything 

Do you have any advice for people who are just beginning out in the fields of Behavioural Science/Economics?

Some of the resources I can recommend are these very famous behavioural science books like ‘Nudge’ and ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ – very useful, but there are other authors as well like Anandi Mani, Dilip Soman, Abhijeet Banerjee as well that give you a very good overview of how Behavioural Science operates. 

One piece of advice is that when you read these books, don’t assume all of the solutions mentioned will work everywhere. Keep an open mind, don’t think that just because it’s working in one context, it will work in the other context. It’s very important to diagnose a problem but also equally important to test it out. Another is that try to pick something which is like a low-hanging fruit, which established the value that behavioural science can weigh in, and then go in for something higher. 

Finally, are there ways in which you incorporate Behavioural Science/Economics in your day-to-day life?

That’s very funny because even though I know behavioural science, I make the same mistakes as anybody else would. But the only difference is that I am more aware of why I’m making mistakes or behaving in a certain way. For example, every day I try to wake up and go exercise but that has just been a massive failure in my life, but at least I know why – it’s a bunch of my behavioural barriers. 

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