Ever since Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted his notorious experiment in the early 1960s, in which he asked participants to obediently administer a high-voltage “shock” to a victim, researchers have uncovered a wealth of fascinating insights into the human mind. But much of this study has been confined to laboratories and academia. Our aim as a behavioral science non-profit is to buck that trend by applying the lessons from behavioral science to the social sector.
What is behavioral science, and why is it so important for policymakers to understand?
Behavioral sciences are really pulling together all the research in social psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics. This field is so important because people often behave in ways that are strange and peculiar. You want to go to the gym five times a week, you want to stay on this diet and you want to save more for retirement. Why isn’t that happening? We all tell ourselves what we want to do, then it doesn’t quite happen. Why not? We as human beings struggle to follow through on certain decisions, particularly things that are very important to us. But programs and policies in the social sector are often created in ways that don’t account for this fundamental aspect, how we behave as humans.
What’s an example of how this looks in practice?
One thing that has been looked at is how to help students complete college. There’s been a lot of great work in this area, but behavioral science dictates a different approach, which is the holistic student experience. How do we take the pulse of a student as they go through the process, day-to-day and semester-to-semester? How do we understand their various decisions, actions, habits? Knowing that there are constant hurdles a student needs to jump over — “Did I apply? Did I matriculate? Did I get my aid? Did I study? Did I pass?” — even a small one can trip them up. The solution isn’t any one piece; it’s creating a system that supports them throughout all of their college years.
It can be very simple, like reminders to complete the FAFSA. With something that small, the rate of those applying to university has been shown to almost double. Behavioral science can also be applied to tougher, more complex problems, like working with a college to figure out how to keep students from dropping out in the first year. A big part of the problem for students was feeling like they didn’t belong on campus. To target this, a video was embedded into orientation showing how lots of other students went through similar challenges, the way they overcame them and how thrilled they are now to be there. Through this approach, the retention rate rose from 83 to 91 percent, which is pretty amazing, just by understanding what these students experienced.
Addressing ethical dilemmas in applying behavioral science research to policy
No matter how you design anything, consciously or unconsciously, you create an outcome. The way anything is built, just in its structure, is nudging people one way or another. Our aim is to try to de-bias that and help people make the decision they want to be making. In the social sector, the main focus is on how we help people move from intention to action. In other words, the goal is not to tell people, “Now, do this,” but rather, helping them follow through.