Posts Tagged ‘behavioral economics’

Amy Fain (Professional Development Coordinator here at CAP) sent me an interesting article on new research into the use of behavior economics to improve school nutrition programs. The new research is funded by $2 million from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The initiative represents a partnership between the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and Economic Research Service.  Officials are hoping that this reasearch will produce practical, cost-effective ways schools can help children make more healthful choices during lunch. 

The $2 million was distributed to 15 different projects.  The largest award ($1 millions) was used establish the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at Cornell University.  According to the USDA’s press release, the Center seeks to:

  • Lead and coordinate research on the application of behavioral economic theory to child nutrition projects and activities
  • expand the network of social scientists who participate in such research
  • disseminate information obtained through its research program to stakeholders, including other researchers, policy and program officials, and the public 

Three mid-range grants (totaling $675,000) were made for studies that will evaluate behavioral economic applications to improve food choices.  The titles of these three projects are:

  • Using Nudges From Cafeterias and Parents To Encourage Healthy Food Choices at School
  • Incentivizing Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Elementary Schools
  • Can Default Options and Incentives Improve Food Choices at School?

The remainder of the money was used to fund 11 smaller developmental grants to increase research capacity in the use of behavioral economics to improve school nutrition programs.  These smaller grants ranged from $25,000-$40,000.  The activities supported by these smaller grants include:

  • fostering relationships between researchers and State or local programs
  • testing concepts and methods through small pilot projects
  • developing and testing data collection methods
  • sponsoring workshops to increase understanding of the application of behavioral economics to school nutrition programs

To read the USDA’s press release, click here.

To read about the projects funded by the initiative, click here.

To read about the program in the Dallas Morning News, click here.

To read more about the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at Cornell University, click here.


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I was pleased to see recent news that President Obama used his weekly address to announce new initiatives to promote savings. (White House, New York Times, New America Foundation). Among other ideas, he charged the IRS with implementing a checkbox on tax returns that would allow you to save a portion of your refund in savings bonds. Behavioral economics teaches us that making saving simpler and available at an opportune time will lead to more people saving. CAP worked with D2D Fund in a pilot to offer savings bonds through our free tax preparation program.

Additionally, the president is seeking new rules that would encourage employers to automatically enroll their workers in retirement plans unless employees opt out. As I’ve mentioned before, “opt out” rules increase take-up of positive behaviors dramatically without limiting one’s freedom or constraining their choices.

Image used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user alancleaver_2000.

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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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One thing we’re concerned about at CAP is where our kids go after they leave our high quality early childhood program. Tulsa Public Schools is a “district of choice,” which means that parents can choose to send their children to schools other than the neighborhood school. We’d like to make sure those kids enter relatively high quality elementary schools. One of our strategies is to locate our new sites on the grounds of elementary schools (such as Kendall-Whittier, Disney, Skelly, and Eugene Field), but another would be to help parents choose good schools for their children.

Which is why I wish I could access the full article that is summarized in this winter’s Pathways magazine:*

In many school districts, parents now have the opportunity to choose among several public schools to which they might send their children, with the options often including schools with a distinctive curricular focus or test scores that are higher than what prevails in their neighborhood school. These “public-choice” plans, which are intended to help close achievement gaps and help disadvantaged youth escape struggling schools, have not always delivered well on that objective. The main problem is that a surprising number of parents choose to remain in their neighborhood school or find the choice  process so daunting they don’t even engage in it. If public-choice plans are to work better, it is therefore important to find ways to make it easier to exercise choice.

This was precisely what Justine S. Hastings and Jeffrey M. Weinstein examined using a unique set of experiments in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. In the past, parents in this district were asked to enter an online system and search for schools to which they might send their children, an approach that might well deter some parents. Over the course of several years, the district shifted the way in which choice could be exercised, abandoning reliance on the online system and instead sending parents a simplified three-page fact sheet on the available choices. In a separately conducted field experiment, an even more simplified one-page fact sheet was sent to parents. The results were striking in two ways. First, by offering simplified information to parents, there were large increases in the number of parents choosingschools with higher test scores. And, secondly, the children who attended these schools performed substantially better on the tests. The public-choice model can work well for struggling students, but parents need a little help in becoming savvy, “choosy” consumers.


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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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President Obama released his budget for the 2010 fiscal year. The document is a kind of roadmap for the President’s initiatives over the next several years, but he’s left lots of room to Congress to fill in details.

Anyway, I thought I’d put up some topics of potential interest to our readers:

  • Early Childhood – The President will build on the investments made in the stimulus bill (e.g. doubling Early Head Start slots), as well as expand early childhood eduation by encouraging state and local investment, promote coordination among state, local, and federal partners, and improve information about program options and quality. Additionally, the budget proposes to create the Nurse Home Visitation program to “provide home visits by trained nurses to first-time low-income mothers” and expectant mothers. This program is based on the evidence-based Nurse Family Partnership model, of which Oklahoma’s Children First is a part. the Read more here.
  • Quality Jobs – The Labor Department budget supports transitional jobs and career pathway programs that help low-income Americans attain quality jobs that pay a living wage and offer opportunities for advancement. New workforce programs will continue to focus on “green jobs” that prepare workers for jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency.
  • Savings and Economic Stability – Building on the work of behavioral economists that demonstrates automatic enrollment in 401(k) programs dramatically boosts participation, the President seeks to create a system in which every employer would automatically enroll every worker into a retirement or pension program. If the employer didn’t offer such a plan themselves, the money would be deposited into an IRA account instead. Such programs have been shown to boost participation rates to as high as 90%. See this article in Harvard Magazine for more on automatic enrollment and behavioral economics. The budget also boosts the Saver’s Credit by providing a 50% match on the first $1,000 of savings for families earning less than $65,000.
  • Promise Neighborhoods – The President includes his campaign commitment to supporting “Promise Neighborhoods,” which would be modeled after Harlem Children’s Zone and seek to improve “life outcomes in high-poverty areas” through intensive services and innovative educational strategies.
  • Social Innovation – Finally, in a move sure designed to forever win the hears of people like Diama, the President proposes a Social Innovation Fund, which would support new approaches to major challenges and leverage private and philanthropic funding. The Stanford Social Innovation Review recently published an article suggesting four federal policies to promote social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Did you see anything else of interest to you?

Obviously all these well-laid plans must still ultimately be funded by Congress, so keep watching.

Image used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user Ma1974.

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