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Why do social interventions fail?

Earlier this week I read an interview with Abhijit Banerjee, MIT economist and co-author of Poor Economics described as “Freakonomics for the billion people on earth who live on less than a dollar a day”.

Poor Economics is a very interesting read for multiple reasons.  Interestingly, it can teach us a thing or two about social interventions in the western world, why they succeed or fail.

  1. There’s no big idea or golden bullet – what works in one scenario won’t work in another.
  2. “Time inconsistency” is an inextricable part of human nature  - or put it simply, sticking to a decision is hard. There’s a great difference between yourself in repose and yourself in action, as Banerjee points out in the interview, he knows he should eat less candy but he likes it so actually giving it up is another matter.
  3. And his research indicates that those living in poverty are less likely to stick to good resolutions such as giving up smoking, losing weight etc. etc. because – a) they have disproportionately high levels of cortisol produced by stress – cortisol impairs impulse control. b) people are less likely to show self-restraint if they have no reason to believe that they can change their circumstances, as Banerjee puts it,  “If you happen to be mostly depressed about the state of your life, I don’t know whether you feel like doing impulse control. If you are like me and you see that you have a bunch of ambitions that you actually think you have a reasonable chance of realising in life, you may be very different in terms of your willingness to give up the almond croissant. But if I feel that everything I’ve hoped for never worked, then what am I restraining myself for?”

So, in short, any programme/policy that assumes that people will do the right thing if they know it’s the right thing, is sadly missing the point.

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