The False Consensus Effect

~ To assume that your personal qualities, characteristics, beliefs, and actions are relatively widespread throughout the general population.
Feature Story


My Next Big Behavior Change Journey 
In Short
  • In Northern Nigeria it was surprising to learn how everyone is family and how literal having a “seat at the table” could be at times. 

  • We’re shifting Busara toward a more distributed, network approach, leveraging pre-existing institutions and the relationships we’ve built in the last two years of struggle.

  • Nudge Arewa aims to ensure large scale data collection and measurement in northern Nigeria - breadbasket of the 7th largest population in the world.

Northern Nigeria is the place that has surprised me more consistently than anywhere I’ve been. The way everyone seems to work with people they call family once seemed curious to me, but now I’ve realized it is simply an unavoidable manifestation of family dynamics, in part because, among the professional class, everyone knows everyone and family words are used for the people you’ve grown up with - most cousins and aunties aren’t actual blood relatives. Integrating yourself or your organization isn’t something that can happen overnight or with a single contract, no matter how large or successful. Social ties must be built through visits, phone calls, and meals. One is graciously invited to the table, but will remain a baƙo (visitor, stranger in Hausa, the implicitly official language of the North despite a huge array of other ethnic groups) in the network until some unknown point.

It has taken me a few (often frustrating) years to build a reliable cultural understanding of northern Nigeria. Hausa people operate according to very different social norms to the Yoruba and Igbo Nigerians I’d met in the U.S. None of my cultural assumptions held, often leading to embarrassing outcomes. For instance, even though there are countless entrepreneurs from the region, speaking about conquering competition is frowned upon if it hurts someone else or has potential to break trust. I’ve realized the importance of presence and trust is at odds here with the common fly-in, fly-out approach to working in the North. Working with the majority of Nigeria’s population in an area with low levels of education, incredible poverty, but also substantial agricultural production and traditional centers of largely untracked wealth and trade simply requires stable presence and deep relationships.

Because of everything I have learned so far, rather than building a hub office and attempting to pitch projects and partnerships to people, I’m guiding Busara toward a more distributed, network approach, leveraging pre-existing institutions and the relationships we’ve built in the last two years of struggle. As a key example, Busara is in the process of establishing the first behavioral lab in West Africa, with Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Kaduna State. The facilities, equipment, and personnel are already in place with hope of running first experiments in April. ABU faculty, such as Dr. Mohammed Kabir, are already teaching game theory and other foundations of behavioral economics. Building this lab will provide me with opportunity to teach more and develop lab systems, and an opportunity to leverage an esteemed institution that educated some of the most impressive economists, public servants, and business leaders I’ve encountered. 

In February, they invited Busara to give a course on applied experimentation and behavioral science to their faculty and graduate students, which, of course, I was eager to lead. A key element of these sessions was a set of case studies of decision-making research in the region, including on topics like agriculture insurance and Nigeria’s Social Investment Programmes. Showing our depth of field research was meant to not only demonstrate relevance, but intentional integration within those communities.

This initiative is part of a larger collaboration between academics, governments, NGOs, and philanthropic funders we’re calling Nudge Arewa. The aim is to ensure large scale data collection and measurement in northern Nigeria as we believe this area is among the most important to study in the world, given that it is the breadbasket of one of the world’s largest population countries, experiencing issues with domestic terrorism through Boko Haram, impacts of desertification and the resulting farmer-herder conflicts, and is the epicenter of ethnic and religious clashes, especially in southern Kaduna State.

By partnering with state-level development agencies, social enterprises like the market platform Amana Market, and involving government affiliated professors like Professor Salamatu Isah, Busara will have the opportunity to conduct research with immediate policy relevance and application. For instance, when something bad happens, a Hausa person might say haka Allah ya yi, it is God’s will, and passively accept the outcome, often leaving social ills unchallenged. This creates an interesting opportunity for behavioral research; how do we promote a more proactive approach to risk that blends well into existing social norms and preferences?  Many of my projects focus on agriculture insurance uptake and it’s difficult to discuss risk mitigation when risks aren't’t identified at all. Insurance might be considered gambling and prayer is identified as the primary mitigation strategy.

Northern Nigeria also offers an opportunity to learn about creating and maintaining social bonds that ward off crises such as the loneliness epidemic in many western countries. In long stays with colleagues' families and in my attempts to grow my social network in Nigeria, I have noticed that family relationships are extremely deep, permanent, and complex. In my first Busara meetings at the Central Bank of Nigeria, my colleague referred to several of the women as Auntie and we made plans for visits later in the week. Rarely do you find Hausa people living outside of Nigeria and even more rarely do you find that they've let family ties slip. Even among people I've befriended who have moved for health or education reasons, it’s common for them to keep in touch on family WhatsApp groups and through Zoom parties, long before it was trendy, and often enough that it makes me feel guilty about how much time I spend with my own. 

In development, we often show up with ‘solutions’ and try to understand context only well enough to create uptake and, when we’re lucky, continued investment and scale. In some cases, rushing contextualization leaves us with poorly performing interventions. In northern Nigeria, it’s a complete non-starter. This place requires us to take context seriously; beyond understanding, to the point of actual cultural integration. Fortunately, these more insulated and less globalized cultures are infinitely fascinating, and in this specific case, extraordinarily warm and inviting. If this sounds like something you'd like to be a part of, do reach out!

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Editor's Note

Integrating context is not always a simple task, but it is a necessary one. Sometimes even the smallest geographic regions present very high levels of cultural diversity. There are several approaches to this problem. Below are a few thoughts and frameworks to think about around context as we endeavor to make the change we want to see in the world.

What is political settlement analysis? - Political settlement analysis presents a framework for more impactful and sustained development interventions by using contextualisation to develop “best fit” rather than “best practice” models.

The global south is changing how knowledge is made, shared and used - The Conversation takes a look at how movements from the global south are influencing the language and models of knowledge production.

Why co-evolution of culture and institutions matters for economic development and growth - This paper from Intech Open examines the correlations between culture and institutions, making a case for working on each to improve the other.

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What you need to know about the AfCFTA Phase II negotiations

36 countries have ratified the AfCFTA treaty and it continues its steady march towards actualisation. As phase II negotiations begin, Nigeria opens up for public participation. Take a look at the phase II agenda.

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