Three fundamentals that change behaviour

As incomes grew, so did adultery. Divorce rose from 3,41,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2013.

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Updated: July 27, 2014 12:42:43 am
Nowhere is culture changing behaviour more visible than in China.  (Reuters) Nowhere is culture changing behaviour more visible than in China. (Reuters)

As incomes grew, so did adultery. Divorce rose from 3,41,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2013.

Behaviour change comes in two ways: at the basic level, enterprises follow the same route avoiding product obsolescence, and, as I wrote last week, the unique way of making incredible difference, as Gillette, Sony Walkman and Apple among others did. However, prominent indicators that change behaviour are culture, food and ergonomics.

Culture: Nowhere is culture changing behaviour more visible than in China. When Deng Xiaoping led the country after Mao Zedong, he introduced reforms from 1978 with his slogan of “To get rich is glorious”. This inspired private enterprises to grow. He de-collectivised communes, shifting to the household responsibility system, making millions of peasants return to family farming. Village and town industries responded to the market. Shenzhen, a little village near Hong Kong, became an SEZ in 1979; today it’s the world’s largest manufacturing hub.

Opening up to international trade made Western influences enter politics, culture, the economy, challenging official values and moving beyond urban to rural areas. Dramatic culture change included family woes like broken homes. As incomes grew, so did adultery. Divorce rose from 3,41,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2013. Suspicious wives are resorting to private detectives, who use secretive measures like attaching GPS trackers to their suspects’ cars or monitoring their calls. Such spying services are illegal but continue as privately collected evidence has been permitted in civil law suits. So traditional Chinese culture is undergoing changes akin to capitalistic societies.

Cultural attributes that change behaviour are basic functioning of day-to-day family life, health, education, economic conditions, lifestyle and livelihood generation. Religion is not a part of it unless the society is monatomic, with one religion driving the socio-eco-political spectrum. Culture started before religion or civilisation, when people discovered how to make fire, find food for survival or draw cave pictures.

It’s evident that materialism brings behavioural change. Take material comforts our godmen enjoy, like airconditioned rooms and cars, first or business class air travel, instead of meditation under the trees. Their disciples may have thrust these comforts upon them, but it’s obvious these disciples have managed to change the habits of godmen.

What’s radically changed India’s working culture is the global IT servicing industry that brings in about $80 billion every year. Young boys and girls work together at call centres. At age 18, in their first job after school, these youngsters can earn up to Rs 18,000 per month, whereas if their father was a simple worker, he’d be earning that amount perhaps after 25 years. So father-child cultural behaviour cannot be the same. News stories abound about condoms clogging call centre drains and employees being counseled because their speech has become American English, odd working hours make them miss all family functions and social contact outside office. Even the behaviour of pre-industrialised Americans was not altered so diametrically when they entered the post-industrial era.

Food: Food is the behaviour changer for immigrant children who pick up the new country’s eating routine, although their parents may take time to change. But when food is designed with strong universal appeal, it can change behaviour. The world’s mass-level people can never accept French-style rare mincemeat beefsteak, but a well-done beef patty covered with salad, cheese and sauce within a bun becomes the familiar, favoured McDonald’s. Change beef to chicken, it even works with heterogeneous Indians with heterogeneous food habits. The Chinese devour burgers too, abandoning their centuries-old noodles habit.

Packaged food companies have remarkably turned people from handmade to readymade food. Without laborious work, you just microwave an enjoyable dinner of varied dishes.

Ergonomics: Physical instruments that humans touch for playing, working or entertaining can disruptively change behaviour. Before Thomas Edison, there was no repeated listening to music, sound or voice. The gramophone entirely modified our approach to entertainment. After Graham Bell’s invention of telephone, our primary communication style changed from using the pigeon, horse rider, or cycling postman as messenger. People held two instruments with both hands to talk and listen; then landline phones became one instrument; now the mobile phone is a single device you keep in your pocket. This behaviour-changing evolution spans the mechanical, electric, electronic to the digi-tech age. Children’s physical attachment to Barbie, Lego or Mechano sets has shifted to digitally driven games. If, as a product designer, you don’t follow children’s changing behaviour with games or the education system, you won’t be designing any saleable instrument for work, play or entertainment tomorrow. I’ve seen my nine-year-old granddaughter Sreeya, who lives in London, return from school at 4 pm, then rush to the computer at a pre-fixed time to work online on mathematics with her classmates for the next day’s test. Their regular practice is to connect to the Internet for doing school homework together. Just imagine how digi-tech is changing children’s behaviour. Sreeya often takes up a challenge against any child who’s online anywhere in the world. Even at office, digi-tech is infusing every domain with radical transformation, from HR recruitment to production to supply chain.

The way we worked 10 years ago is not the same now, but our attitude in certain areas will never change. Fashion is cyclic, something new comes, vanishes, returns and we knowingly ride that cycle happily. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, politician or philosopher, try enlisting culture, food and our ergonomic relationship with devices, the agents that change human behaviour, to really become iconic, capture mindshare and sell your product or ideology across the world.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at

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