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The Power of Context

The simplest answer is not always the right one and life can get a little more complicated than that

We live in an era of instant coffee and analysis. Even before something has happened, the analysis on why it has happened is ready. Given this, it leads to situations where we analyse using what we think is 'common sense'. But common sense does not always work. The simplest answer is not always the right one. Life can get a little more complicated than that.

Consider the story of a woman who the economists Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo met in the slums of Hyderabad. The economists recount this story in their book Poor Economics-Rethinking Poverty & the Ways to End It: “A woman we met in a slum in Hyderabad told us that she had borrowed ₹10,000 from Spandana and immediately deposited the proceeds of the loan in a savings bank account. Thus, she was paying a 24 per cent annual interest rate to Spandana, while earning about 4 per cent on her savings account.” Spandana is a micro-finance institution.

Common sense tells us that anyone in their right mind wouldn't do anything like this. But the economists soon found out that there was a method to the madness, once they saw the context in which the woman was operating.

As they write: “When we asked her why this made sense, she explained that her daughter, now 16, would need to get married in about two years. That ₹10,000 was the beginning of her dowry. When we asked why she had not opted to simply put the money she was paying to Spandana for the loan into her savings bank account directly every week, she explained that it was simply not possible: other things would keep coming up...The point, as we eventually figured out, is that the obligation to pay what you owe to Spandana-which is well enforced-imposes a discipline that the borrowers might not manage on their own.”

Once viewed in this context the story makes immense sense. The woman was borrowing at 24 per cent and investing it at 4 per cent in order to build a savings kitty for her daughter's dowry. Of course, prima facie this wouldn't have seemed obvious at all. As Nicholas Epley writes in Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want; “The mistakes we make when reasoning about the minds of others all have the same central outcome: underestimating their complexity, depth, detail, and richness. When we're indifferent to others, it's easy to overlook their minds altogether, treating such people as relatively mindless animals or objects than as fully mindful persons.”

Epley gives a brilliant example of people who chose to stay back in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit the city in August 2005. The experts were at it with their instant analysis. As ABC News put it, “It's hard to understand the mind-set of those who ignored evacuation orders.” Michael Chertoff, the Chief of Homeland Security said that those who stayed back made a “mistake on their part”. Psychiatrists suggested that there was a “certain amount of denial involved” on part of those who had chosen to stay back in New Orleans, given that they believed that they could handle the storm.

All these explanations sound pretty convincing, “but it does not resonate as well with the actual experience of most who left and stayed, because the broader context is not quite as easy to see.” It is simple to come to the conclusion that anyone choosing to stay back and take on a category 5 hurricane was not right in the head. But anyone who came to that conclusion ignored the context in which the people who had chosen to stay back, were operating.

As Epley writes, “Compared to those who left, those who stayed were disproportionately poor, had geographically narrower social network, had larger families (both children and extended members), had less access to reliable news, and were considerably less likely to own a car.” And given this it was not easy for these people to just pack up and leave.

“If you had money to pay for an extended hotel stay, relatively small family to move, a car to get all of you there, or had far-away friends to stay with, you could choose to leave. If you had no money for an extended hotel stay, no car to get you out, a large family to move and no long distance-friends to stay with, what choice did you have?” asks Epley.

Of course, people who analysed the situation did not understand this broader context. Given this, before passing judgements it is important to understand the context in which people are operating. People who chose to stay back when Katrina hit New Orleans, did not need convincing to leave the city, what they needed was a bus. As Epley puts it, “Many who stayed wanted to desperately to leave but couldn't. They didn't need convincing, they needed a bus.”

And what about the woman who borrowed money at 24 per cent and invested it at 4 per cent? What it clearly tells us is that there is a need for a savings solution which allows the poor to save on a daily basis. If they can discipline themselves to pay back micro-finance institutions every week, they can easily discipline themselves to save small amounts on a daily basis. Of course, there are financial institutions which cater to this market, but most of them are dubious of nature. Hence, there is a clear market out there for anyone which is willing to take the risk.

Vivek Kaul is the author of 'Easy Money'. He tweets @kaul_vivek.