Forget Attitudes, Beliefs, and Norms

Posted September 3, 2015

Women won the right to vote and run for office in Saudi Arabia today. In a country where women cannot drive (an issue that turns even the most staid monarchs in to rambunctious activists), this feels like an unlikely victory.

But there’s catch.

As Renee Montaigne explores in this NPR piece, the right to vote alone does guarantee voting behavior. Why? Because of the many barriers, large and small, that undermine this right in the country.

First, women have to register to vote. As our own history tell us, this alone can render the right to vote an impotent gesture toward equality. In Saudi Arabia, specifically, a number of societal and “contextual” barriers prevent women from registering:

To recap Renee’s interview, two really stuck out as key barriers:

  • Women cannot drive. In order to register, many women on the country will have to ask to be driven to register. In effect, asking their family members for permission to vote.
  • Second, women have to have proof of address to register. However, their names are not included on their home address. To prove their residency, they must acquire multiple additional documents to vote.

So why does this matter to Energy? Most of the behavior-based research focused on addressing internal, or psychological, barriers to action such as motivation. Women in Saudi Arabia are highly motivated to vote and they have the right to vote – but can they? Will they go through the trouble in the face of these barriers? At what risk to them?

Similarly, we assume that if there is motivation and desire, then there will be action. There is nothing further from the truth. We need to be attuned to the contextual and societal barriers that prevent participation in our programs. Changing attitudes, beliefs, and social norms will not save our failing programs. Nor can they alone get us to our goals. There are many things that ail our programs, and for this reason, we have to look at all of the barriers.