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‘Social distance, cleanliness, personal hygiene, stay at home’ are words that we are bombarded with day in and day out. We believe that this is the only way to deal with this wicked problem, the human race is grappling with. Humankind is waging a war against a common enemy but because of the socio-economic conditions, each country is trying to solve this major crisis from its stance. We are rooted in our own cultural moorings and trying to cope with it from our perspectives. Business sectors have their own challenges and each is trying desperately to keep afloat. At the micro-level, each one of us is coping with it in our own way by drawing strength from ‘within’.

Every country is dealing with this pandemic in cognizance with its own resources. The Indian government decided on complete lockdown in an attempt to slow and flatten the curve of the virus. On March 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to maintain social distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, following the announcement what we saw in Delhi (and some places in Mumbai and Bangalore) was really shocking, thousands of migrant workers queuing up at the bus stops and railway stations to return to their hometowns. Some struggling to get on their last train home, some crying uncontrollably as they missed them.

This sight raises a natural question: Why are they so irrational?

Well…irrartional! really? What is rationality amidst an unprecendented situation like a panademic? It’s a catch 22 situation on the one hand lockdown to prevent its spread but this led to panic and chaos for the migrant workers . Looking at the visuals of people crowding and hustling to get on buses and trains one is left with so many questions. Where are the answers? We ask! There is no right model to deal with this major crisis that has enveloped the entire globe. Countries that have not announced complete locked down are facing an exponential increase in the infected cases and eventual deaths. The richest countries are deep in their own predicament and each country is turning ‘inward’ to solve this ‘third world war’. ‘Inward’ we say so lets try and understand the problem from the perspective of the migrant workers. Immerse deep into their lives to comprehend their painpoints. We did speak to a few but at present their conversations are laden with emotions of fear, insecurity, panic and confusion. We cannot comprehend the rational need that is driving them to forsake their safety and pay no dictat to social distance, hence, in order to appreciate their point of view we drew some insights from some academic theories based on action research to fathom this behaviour.

Lets understand rationality first. The behavioural science defines a two-system model of the brain. System 1 thinks fast: it is intuitive, automatic, and effortless, and as a result, prone to biases and errors. System 2 is slow, effortful, deliberate, and costly, but typically produces more unbiased and accurate results. It further proposes that when mentally taxed, people are less likely to engage their System 2 processes.

Simply put, one might think of having a (mental) reserve or capacity (we refer to this as ‘cognitive bandwidth’ or ‘bandwidth’) for the kind of effortful thought required to use System 2 and when burdened, there is less of bandwidth available for use in making other judgements and decisions.

Let’s shift our attention to be au fait with who the Indian migratory workers really are? These are the labourers from the rural areas migrated to the urban and semi-urban areas for money and mostly work as a daily wages worker and live in rented or temporary arrangements made available at the job site location. The average daily earning ranges anywhere between Rs.85 to Rs 150. (Needs Citation). These migrant workers are really poor and can be deemed to be just managing to meet both the ends.

To understand the psychology behind the migrant workers we appraised our current situation from the work by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, Jiaying Zhao, where they establish that poverty-related distresses consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. In an interesting field experiment study conducted by Mani et al. (2013) on Indian farmers in districts of Villupuram and Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, during the pre and post harvesting season. The study concluded that thinking and worrying about money can effectively tax the cognitive bandwidth and that poverty directly impedes cognitive function of the poor.

Being poor means having less money to buy things, but it also means having to spend more of one’s cognitive bandwidth managing that money. The poor must manage sporadic income, juggle expenses, and make difficult trade-offs. Even when the poor are not actually making financial decisions, these preoccupations can be distracting.

And with the #India lockdown for 21 days, there can be no other worry than to earn money and make their livelihood (and survival) possible for next 21 days and possibly beyond. As a consequence, the lockdown challenge is more than just economic, it is also an cognitive overload on these migrant workers.

Johannes Haushofer and Ernst Fehr ( 2014) in their theory of Psychology of Poverty posit that poverty may have certain psychological consequences that can lead to economic behaviors that make it challenging to escape poverty. Poor economic conditions cause pressures that lead to negative emotional states which in turn may lead to imprudent and risk-averse decision-making and certain characteristic behaviours.

Negative affect and stress: The cognitive and emotional burden is immense for the poor as the adversity itself gets further compounded by negatively skewed affective perceptions of situations.

‘Waise bhi mandi chal rahi thi uspe yeh lockdown ka chakkar… ab paise kaha se aayengey…”

Self Control: The depletion of mental resources for self-control can lead to impulsive behaviors that eventually cumulate producing poor economic decisions, thus leading to a vicious cycle of poverty-inducing behaviours

Stress: Emotional experiences and stress pose high demands on working memory, resulting in poor decision-making abilities leading to impulsive decisions. The stress causes the movement from “do it if it makes sense” to “do it if it feels good”

Time discounting: Time discounting refers to decision-making which involves compromises between costs and benefits occurring at different times and increased time-discounting indicates a ‘preference for smaller immediate rewards over larger, distal rewards.’

Risky Health behaviour: Living in poverty is associated with an increased prevalence of risky behavior and potential negative consequences in areas such as health care (Shankar et al., 2010).

Scarcity has a tendency to push us into a state of tunneling: a focus primarily on the scarcity of a resource, and a resulting neglect for everything else “outside” the tunnel – focusing on immediate goals (concerns) at the expense of considering how to achieve long term goals.

e.g. For example, a doctor’s visit can resemble a dichotic listening task. In one ear, the poor are listening to the diagnosis and potential cures, while at the same time they are contemplating the price of the medication and whether they can afford it—even when the latter has not been mentioned. The poor see an economic dimension in many everyday experiences; a dimension that is largely absent for those who are better off.

“Yaha khaneke lale padd gaye hai… corona ki test karne ke paise kaha se lau?”

We sitting in the comfort of our homes, with no shortage of food. The only worry is boredom, restriction in movement and on Maslow Need Hierarchy we have our lower order needs of food, clothing, housing, and financial security fulfilled. Research has also shown that for any immigrant, no matter which level of needs they had reached prior to migrating from their homes they needs get pushed by various contextual and internal reasons toward the bottom of the pyramid back to the physiological and security needs.

…..And to think that here, we are speaking of migrant workers who are anyway at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Observing these workers throwing all caution out of the window and gathering in crowds to just run back home. Who are we , watching them from the coziness of our homes , on our TV channels make judgements on their rationality? ‘Stay Home’ and so they are ‘Going to their Homes’ ‘Social distance’ so they are staying distant from the owners and wanting to stay with their loved ones as we all are …..looking inward!

Last but not the least the Emotional Aspect:

“Home is where the heart is?” – Gaius Plinius Secundus

Maslow’s theory explains the needs explains safety as one of the component in the hierarchy of needs. The corona virus prevention slogan during the lockdown suggested “stay at home stay safe”. They current houses that they stay in are rented and shared by fellow mates and for most of the migrant workers the home is back in their villages and that where they feel ‘safe’.

“Stay at Home .. Stay Safe ka naara lagate hai… par mera ghar to gaon mein hai?”

‘Scarcity’ frames the values and generates different cues for deciding value. And these cues are different for poors than for for those who are better off. So to discount that the migrant workers are irrational, We think its more of a case of “Rationally – Irrational”

From a larger perspective , it’s during these unprecedented times that we need to connect and collaborate. The task ahead is mammoth and so each one of us will have to shed our biases and see the world from the less advantaged standpoint, too. Rationality, with its deductive and inductive logic is the way to go when we are dealing with linear complex problems. Today, humans are failing and faltering, inspite of the most sophisticated science and techonological innovations. So let’s reboot and go back to basics love, community, empathy the very reasons that got us humans to the apex . If we fail to do, there will be point of no return for the human race.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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