Posts Tagged ‘behavior change’

Miller-McCune News reports on a new study that found people think more carefully when they carry heavier objects:

In another test, participants were asked to rate a series of arguments in favor of building a controversial subway system. Once again, those carrying the heavier clipboard seem to have thought through the issue more thoroughly: They were less likely to agree with the weaker arguments and more likely to have a clear opinion on the project.

So why would holding something heavy result in “greater investment of effort” (to use the researchers’ description) in an intellectual exercise? Jostmann and his colleagues point to theories of embodied cognition. “We assume that experiencing weight influences judgments of importance because the concept of importance is linked to experiences of weight,” they write.

“Through repeated experiences with heavy objects since early childhood, people learn that dealing with heavy objects generally requires more effort, in terms of physical strength or cognitive planning, than dealing with light objects. People may thus associate the experience of weight with the increased expenditure of bodily or mental effort.”

Much of the research into behavior change and behavioral economics has focused on how the context of a decision can affect the decision taken. People are more likely to “choose” a default option because they won’t bother to opt out. People will steal a $1 can of coke but not a $1 bill. And so on. But not very much of it focuses on the physical context in which we make decisions, which can be just as important. For instance, drivers are more cautious and deferential to others at an unmarked intersection than they are at one with a stoplight.

Still, I’m not sure what implication this has on early childhood education or workforce programs. It seems impractical to deliberately weigh people down. So I’m curious if you have any ideas. How could you add a little heft to the people you serve? (And I don’t mean through calories!) Any ideas?

Image courtesy a Creative Commons license from flickr user Big Ben.


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This sign includes some interesting elements of behavior change:

Notice the top message. One lesson from behavioral research is that people can be convinced to do things when they know others are doing it. Who wants to be among the 2% of idiots that don’t pay their fare correctly? I wouldn’t, so I’ll “touch in and touch out” next time – whatever that means.

This seems pretty obvious (peer pressure and all that) but a lot of times we frame things badly by highlighting the negative behavior rather than the behavior we want. When we say 59% of low-income people don’t have a bank account (I just made that up), we make it seem socially acceptable not to have an account. But if instead we say 75% of Americans have a bank account, we highlight the desired behavior and make it seem desirable to be in that group.

The other thing this sign does is play off of people’s loss aversion. Research shows that people do more to avoid loss than they do for a potential gain. The sign doesn’t say “Touch in and touch out and you’ll save £2” – and that’s by design. It’s framed as a loss: if you don’t want to pay the “maximum cash fare” then “touch in and touch out.” I have no idea what the maximum fare is, but I’m willing to bet most Brits don’t know either. This uncertainty probably makes you even more loss averse. If the difference is £2, I might be willing to pay that. But if I don’t know – I’d rather not risk it costing me £5.


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Time ran an interesting article on how the Obama administration (and before that for his campaign) is being influenced and advised by the brightest minds in behavior change research.

We all know Obama won the election because he looked like change, sounded like change and never stopped campaigning for change. But he didn’t call for just change in Washington — or even just change in America… Obama called for change in Americans.

In fact, Obama is betting his presidency on our ability to change our behavior. His top priorities — the economy, health care and energy — all depend on it. We need to spend more money now to avert a short-term depression, then save more money later to secure our long-term economic future. We need to consume less energy in order to reduce our oil imports and carbon emissions as well as our household expenses. We need to quit smoking, lay off the Twinkies and avoid other risky behaviors that both damage our personal health and boost the costs of care that are ravaging the nation’s fiscal health. Basically, we need to make better choices — about mortgages and credit cards, insurance and retirement plans — so we won’t need bailouts down the road.

The problem, as anyone with a sweet tooth, an alcoholic relative or a maxed-out Visa card knows, is that old habits die hard. Temptation is strong. We are weak. We’ve got plenty of gurus, talk-show hosts and celebrity spokespeople badgering us to save energy, lose weight and live within our means, but we’re still addicted to oil, junk food and debt. It’s fair to ask whether we’re even capable of changing.

But the latest science suggests that yes, we can. Studies of all kinds of human frailties are revealing how to help people change — not only through mandates or financial incentives but also via subtler nudges that preserve our freedom to make choices while encouraging us to make better ones, from automatic-enrollment 401(k) plans that require us to opt out if we don’t want to save for retirement to smart meters that warn us about how much energy we’re using. These nudges can trigger huge changes; in a 2001 study, only 36% of women joined a 401(k) plan when they had to sign up for it, but when they had to opt out, 86% participated.

According to the article, our friend Sendhil Mullainathan “is organizing an outside network of behavioral experts to provide the Administration with policy ideas.” In his spare time, Sendhil has been helping us think about how to use the science of behavior change to get parents to avoid costly financial decisions such as subprime loans, and he recently introduced the basic concepts of behavioral economics to staff from every division of CAP at one of our “Lunch n’ Learns”.

Image used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user russelldavies.

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Mayor Kathy Taylor announced that the city’s printers will now be set to two-sided printing by default, saving an estimated (and astounding!) $41,400 per year. This is a great example of what Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein call “nudges.”

One well-known nudge is default enrollment into 401(k) programs, which can boost enrollment rates up to 90 percent. Usually (including at CAP, sadly), you have to opt-in to an employer retirement program, causing even people who know better to delay and forget to do so. Default enrollment flips the choice – you are automatically enrolled and you are left with the freedom to choose to opt out.

Behavioral economists and their ilk call these nudges “choice architecture,” or the ways in which we can encourage people to make better (or different) choices by changing the context in which they make the decision. The idea is that we can get better choices without actually constraining anyone’s freedom to choose for themselves.

(You can read more in Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge as well as on their blog. We’ve also mentioned them here and here.)

The Tulsa Initiative, and CAP more generally, has been thinking a lot about how to leverage behavioral research to obtain better outcomes for the people we serve. How can we change the context in which people make decisions so that its just a little bit easier to save some money, pay the bills on time, get kids enrolled in Sooner Care, etc?

Image used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user herby_fr.

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One thing we’re interested in at the Tulsa Initiative is how to get people to change their behaviors, borrowing heavily from ideas in psychology and behavioral economics (see Nudge or the work of two of our colleagues on the Tulsa Children’s Project, Michael Barr and Sendhil Mullainathan). So I like to keep my eyes on what others are doing to fool, cajole, or “nudge” people into behaving in a preferred way.

Capital Ideas, a marketing publication from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business and, apparently, something I subscribe to, has an article in the November issue on why marketers should use customer rewards programs to trick persuade their loyal customers to spend more.

The first experiment looked at coffee purchases by customers who participated in a coffee rewards program at a café located within the campus of a large university. Customers were offered a card that would let them earn one free coffee after buying ten coffees. To keep track of the timing of purchases, a participant’s card was stamped after each purchase.

As participants in the rewards program accumulated more stamps on their cards, the authors observed that the average length of time before the next coffee purchase decreased. Members bought that next coffee sooner the closer they were to getting a free one. In fact, the average time between purchases accelerated by about 20 percent from the first to the last stamp on the card. In other words, members purchased two more coffees in the time it took to complete the card than they would have if they hadn’t accelerated their purchases. (emphasis mine)

The author, Oleg Urminsky, recommends that marketers structure rewards programs that create “the illusion of progress” so that customers will shell out more cash more quickly increase their frequency of participation. For instance, customers who were given a 12 stamp card with 2 “free” stamps already given completed the program 3 days faster than customers with a regular 10 stamp card (12.7 vs 15.6 days).

For people like me, who usually forget that I have a rewards card in my wallet until I’ve walked out the door, Urminsky adds that the customer should get “regular updates about where they are in the program.” Sage advice indeed.

The obvious implication for service delivery is that programs should contain a rewards program that incentizives the desired behavior. But it seems to me that this effect, which is unsexily titled the “goal-gradient hypothesis”, could be leveraged outside of rewards programs per se. For example, if we were to design a matched savings program with the goal of purchasing a $4,000 car (clearly this is strictly hypothetical…), this research suggests that matching at the front end could be more effective than matching at the same rate throughout. That is, a 100% match up to the first $500 would move the participant toward the savings goal quickly and help the participant overcome any initial resistance to savings (e.g. the goal seems too distant). The match rate could then be reduced as the participant increases their own savings behavior as they near their goal.

What am I missing?

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