At TDL, our role is to translate science. This article is part of a series on cutting edge research that has the potential to create positive social impact. While the research is inherently specific, we believe that the insights gleaned from each piece in this series are relevant to behavioral science practitioners in many different fields. As a socially conscious applied research firm, we are always looking for ways to translate science into impact. If you would like to chat with us about a potential collaboration, feel free to contact us.
Navigating the topic of helping people make the best decisions for themselves, without infringing on their rights, or missing opportunities to improve their choices, is a difficult balance. To learn more about how this problem is tackled in the academic world, we reached out to Katie Mehr.
She is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Decision Processes track at The Wharton School. Previously, she worked in Professor Gretchen Chapman’s Medical Decision Making Lab. Before starting at Wharton, she earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Rutgers – New Brunswick. Most of Katie’s research falls into two broad areas. She studies behavior change, or how to nudge people towards completing desirable yet difficult behaviors, like exercising, saving for retirement, or eating healthy food. She also investigates consumer behavior, which includes questions related to advertisements, recommendations, and product reviews.
A full version of the study discussed in this conversation is available here: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/708880
Nathan: How would you explain your research question to the general public?
Katie: We wanted to test whether prompting people to seek out and mimic a life hack used by a peer to achieve a goal of shared interest could be helpful. This is why we call it the “copy-paste nudge” Because you’re “copying” what works for a friend and “pasting” that strategy into your own life.
Nathan: What did you think you'd find, and why?
Katie: There has been a lot of research to suggest that people naturally emulate their peers. But, people may fail to absorb all the useful information that they could pick up from others. For instance, you may have a friend who uses a particularly clever strategy to motivate herself to exercise regularly or to study harder, but you may not notice it or think to try it out yourself. So we prompted people who were pursuing a particular goal, in our case, the goal to exercise more, to find a hack used by a friend to achieve that very same goal and then “copy and paste” it. This would help them learn from and socialize with peer role models, boosting their likelihood of goal achievement. Which meant, in this instance, increasing the amount of time they spent exercising.
Nathan: What rough process did you follow?
Katie: We ran a large experiment where participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. In our copy-paste prompt group, participants were prompted to find and emulate a friend’s strategy to help them exercise more often. In our quasi-yoked group, participants passively received an exercise strategy to mimic that someone else in a previous study had “copy-pasted.” In the simple control group, participants were not given any exercise strategies. Everybody was, however, prompted to make exercise plans.
Nathan: What did you end up finding out?
Katie: We found that participants who found and mimicked an exercise strategy, in other words, those who were in the copy-paste prompt group, reported spending 55.8 more minutes exercising over the course of one week than those in the simple control group. That meant an average of 32.5 minutes of additional exercise over the quasi-yoked groups as well, which showed that our intervention was even more successful than more passive recommendations.
Nathan: How do you think this is relevant to an applied setting (i.e. in business or public policy)?
Katie: Copy-paste prompts have several advantages that make them easily applicable to a wide range of settings. In addition to being virtually costless and easy to implement, they can be applied to a wide range of problems, like learning how to study more effectively or saving more money for retirement. More broadly, our work suggests that people do not spontaneously absorb all helpful social information from their peers. Thus, prompting people, ranging from employees at a business to consumers looking to schedule their flu shot, to learn and adopt life hacks from others can add value.
Nathan: Do you see future research stemming from your study? In what directions?
Katie: While we’re excited by these initial studies, we’re interested in expanding this work further. For instance, our original study relied primarily on self-reported measures of exercise, so observing and measuring objective behavior would be useful. We also only examined copy-paste prompts’ effectiveness over the course of ten days, so exploring the long-term effects of copy-paste prompts could be important. Finally, we want to know when copy-paste prompts work best and gain more insight into why they work.
Behavioral Science, Democratized
We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices.
At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.
About the Authors
Katie is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Decision Processes track at The Wharton School. Previously, she worked in Professor Gretchen Chapman’s Medical Decision Making Lab. Before starting at Wharton, she earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Rutgers – New Brunswick. Most of Katie’s research falls into two broad areas. She studies behavior change, or how to nudge people towards completing desirable yet difficult behaviors, like exercising, saving for retirement, or eating healthy food. She also investigates consumer behavior, which includes questions related to advertisements, recommendations, and product reviews.
Nathan Collett studies decision-making and philosophy at McGill University. Experiences that inform his interdisciplinary mindset include a fellowship in the Research Group on Constitutional Studies, research at the Montreal Neurological Institute, a Harvard University architecture program, a fascination with modern physics, and several years as a technical director, program coordinator, and counselor at a youth-run summer camp on Gabriola Island. An upcoming academic project will focus on the political and philosophical consequences of emerging findings in behavioral science. He grew up in British Columbia, spending roughly equal time reading and exploring the outdoors, which ensured a lasting appreciation for nature. He prioritizes creativity, inclusion, sustainability, and integrity in all of his work.