Fundamental social, economic and political change is urgently needed to improve the life of Lebanese citizens and strengthen our nation’s governance.
Many Lebanese debate various ways to bring about change and reform in Lebanon. However, most of the suggested policies only focus on tackling technical issues and fail to address how to implement them and help people adapt to new rules.
Take for example the numerous times enforcement of traffic laws was attempted in Lebanon. Millions of dollars were invested in mounting cameras at traffic lights; radars were installed to track speed limits; and police personnel were deployed to penalize parking and seat belt violations. All these measures were technical by nature and were never successfully implemented for more than a few months, at best. The common explanations are the lack of political commitment, or the ineffectiveness of enforcement agencies.
Behavioral science could inform the design of reforms in Lebanon.Georges Sassine
However, an important part that is often ignored is the fact that “illegal” driving has become a habit of many Lebanese citizens. It has almost become a cultural trait. In this case technical solutions will continue on failing. Instead what is needed are ways to help Lebanese drivers adapt to new laws, and change their bad driving habits.
Studying human behavioral science might prove useful and inform the design of reforms in Lebanon.
In his book “The Power of Habit“ New York Times reporter, Charles Duhigg, investigated how to diagnose habits and change them among individuals, companies and societies. He found that you cannot extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.
He quotes researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who suggest a basic three stage formula at the core of each habit: a signal, a routine, and a reward. They found that each habit is triggered by a signal. It could be a certain time, location, or emotion which then activates a routine. Once completed, this routine provides a certain sense of reward and satisfaction.
In order to replace bad habits, Duhigg argues that the same signals and rewards must be kept but a new routine has to be inserted.
In Lebanon, for example, in the early 1970s low income communities gathered every Sunday along the streets leading to the national airport. They barbecued and held festive lunches along road medians – the narrow and long area planted with grass and trees separating opposing traffic lanes. While peaceful by nature these large get-togethers attracted the criticism of many local communities and tourists witnessing these scenes at the airport’s exit. After the failure of several negotiations to stop these gatherings, the Lebanese armed forces were sent to clear public spaces. This led to violent clashes and cascaded into prolonged and politicized protests.
The Minister of Tourism quickly realized that confrontational measures will not resolve the issue. Instead he ordered firefighters to heavily water green areas in these specific road medians every Saturday evening for several weeks. Come Sunday these public spaces were muddy and uncomfortable and ended the crowd turnout.
Applying Duhigg’s three step framework, the signal is Sunday mornings when these communities engaged in the routine of gathering and eating in public spaces. The reward is the sense of community and satisfaction they get at the end. Keeping that same signal and reward, the Minister of Tourism enabled them to replace that particular habit with other Sunday afternoon activities that still fulfilled their craving.
Similar to this case, current Lebanese decision makers could use the signal, routine, reward framework for fresh insights as they deal with situations requiring behavioral change.
Innovation and creativity is the only way to approach Lebanon’s challenges … focusing on changing habits and helping people adapt could be the cornerstone of leadership in Lebanon.Georges Sassine
Another noteworthy concept introduced by Duhigg is that some habits – called ‘Keystone Habits’ – can start a chain reaction and change several other behaviors. He uses the example of Alcoa, a major aluminum company struggling in the 1980s. Instead of introducing traditional cost reduction measures the new CEO focused on one priority within the company: improving workers safety. As new routines moved through the organization, costs came down, quality went up, productivity skyrocketed and within two years Alcoa was the top performer in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
The lesson is that patterns across organizations and societies can be changed if we prioritize these keystone habits. However, identifying them is tricky and requires a bit of ingenuity.
In Lebanon, these two main concepts can be used to improve driving patterns. One interpretation suggests that the signal is when a driver sees a red traffic light. It triggers his routine of speeding, burning the light, and provides the reward of feeling important and some sense of satisfaction that he is smarter than other drivers who have stopped.
As we look closer one can’t help but notice that some Lebanese not respecting laws or order is not limited to traffic lights. It could be argued that it is a widespread phenomenon across many other situations such as cutting lines, evading business laws, disregarding the non-smoking policy, and cutting corners in many mundane aspects of daily life. Wanting to outwit the system has become ingrained in Lebanese culture. Therefore, a better way to resolve the driving issues in Lebanon could be to think about that broader social habit instead of only focusing on bad driving in itself.
Concentrating on keystone habits could be the better approach in this case.
We have to acknowledge that many Lebanese citizens operate within a frustrating environment. These habits are nurtured in an unstable and uncertain economic, security, and political context which they’ve been subjected to most of their lives. These could be guiding insights to identify the right keystone habits to focus on.
The priority should be on securing financial stability and family security for Lebanese. If the government is absolutely dedicated to achieve these two goals, similar to Alcoa’s example, a chain reaction could start and change other behaviors including driving patterns.
There is no doubt that these issues deserve more in-depth thought. But Lebanese politicians and citizens need to recognize that innovation and creativity should be the way to approach our country’s challenges. The science of human habits and behavioral change could provide a useful framework to think through reform initiatives in Lebanon.