Better living through behavioral science

How the psychology of human behavior is helping tackle society’s biggest problems

By Wendy Plump

SUPPOSE someone approaches you on the street with the following proposition: You can receive either cash on the spot or a much larger contribution to your retirement account that likely will yield far more in the future. Do you choose the instant cash, or go with the retirement account?

The answer tells a lot about how people think, and about how public policymakers think people think.

Most people, it turns out, would choose the instant cash. Most policymakers, at least until somewhat recently, would have said that people would select the higher long-term payout of the retirement account.

Over the past two decades, policy planners from the Oval Office to the middle-school principal’s office have become aware that people often do not behave rationally, nor even in their own best interests. Understanding why people act as they do is the basis of the growing discipline of behavioral science, which is helping shape policies that tackle society’s biggest problems, from financial planning to public health.

“It is remarkable how little effort has been made to understand human behavior in policy circles,” said Eldar Shafir, the Class of 1987 Professor in Behavioral Science and Public Policy and a leader in this field of research. “Policy depends upon people doing things that the policymakers expect them to do. Yet, there has been almost no attempt to understand what people actually do, what they can do and what they want to do.”

Shafir has been working to change that along with colleagues at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson School researchers are exploring the behavioral aspects of policies that combat poverty, school bullying, discrimination and many other issues.

The idea that psychology is essential for good public policy can be traced back 100 years to American economist John Maurice Clark at Columbia University, according to Shafir. “Clark pointed out that any time you design policy, you have to understand psychology,” Shafir said. “If you don’t, your policy design and implementation will often be flawed.”

This may sound like common sense, but in the past, psychology rarely had a place at the policy table, said Daniel Kahneman, Princeton’s Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, and professor of psychology and public affairs, emeritus, and a pioneer in the field. Instead, two disciplines — economics and law — were the wells from which policymakers drew almost exclusively.

Kahneman’s work is credited with improving economic analyses by including insights from psychology, especially on human judgment and decision making under uncertainty. The citation for his 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences lauds him for “laying the foundation for a new field of research.”

Yet, Kahneman is uncomfortable taking credit for the field’s progress. Instead, he cites economist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago. Thaler and Harvard University Law School’s Cass Sunstein co-authored a 2008 book titled, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, that ushered applied behavioral science into the public consciousness.

The book brought attention to concepts such as how to present choices to people in ways that provide a gentle prod toward making good decisions. For example, automatically enrolling new employees in a retirement-savings program and allowing them to opt out, rather than encouraging employees to opt in to the program, dramatically increases the number of people who save for retirement.

These and other insights are backed up by extensive studies of how people actually behave and make decisions in given situations. A number of Princeton researchers are involved in research in behavioral science that has direct implications for public policy:

Stopping schoolyard conflict

Early in her career, Elizabeth Levy Paluck became interested in how social norms can influence people’s behavior. In post-genocide Rwanda, she found that a media campaign to help reduce prejudice and violence drew much of its success from its emphasis on changing people’s definition of acceptable and desired behavior.

“I study social norms — informal laws that are created and enforced by people,” said Paluck, professor of psychology and public affairs in the Wilson School. “How do people in a community figure out what these laws are, and how to follow them? One theory is that we look to the behavior of certain peers for cues as to what we should be doing.”

Paluck and colleagues wondered whether highly influential students could have an outsized impact on the social norms and behaviors of other students in a school setting. They designed an intervention called the Roots program that was aimed at reducing school bullying and conflict by convincing influential students to practice positive behaviors, with the goal of reaching wider networks of peers.

With colleagues at Rutgers and Yale universities, Paluck tested this approach in a study conducted at 56 middle schools throughout New Jersey. The researchers asked students to report who they socialized with on a regular basis — both in person and online — and then used the data to identify the most connected students.

The analysis identified students who were leaders among their specific peer groups, not just those who were the most popular overall. The researchers encouraged this small set of students to take a public stand against bullying at their schools. Would these “social referents” be able to spread social change?

Paluck and her collaborators found that middle schools that instituted Roots experienced a 30 percent reduction in reported “conflict incidents,” a finding the researchers published Jan. 4, 2016, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The results suggest that behavior-change campaigns may be made more effective when they harness networks of influence to change societal norms.

Funding for the project came from the William T. Grant Foundation’s Scholars Program, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Princeton’s Educational Research Section, the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.

Combating scarcity

For his research on poverty, Shafir studies the impact that deprivation has on an individual’s ability to focus intellectual energy on life tasks. His work touches on the age-old question regarding the causes and effects of poverty: Are people poor because they are not capable, or are they are not capable because they are poor?

Shafir and his team have found that poor people are often quite good at making short-term decisions about how to spend money. But the continual pressure to make ends meet can create an oppressive cognitive load on the individual, leaving little bandwidth for other tasks, including long-term planning.

This situation is compounded by the fact that small but unexpected expenses, such as a car-repair bill, can have much larger consequences for poor people than for middle-class individuals who have some slack in their monthly budget. Shafir and co-author Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard explored research on poverty in their 2013 book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. They challenge the common societal perception that poverty is the result of personal failings and recast it as the outcome of a chronic lack of resources, be it money, transportation and housing, or even time.

Understanding the drivers of behavior among the poor can guide policies that help reduce the stresses and challenges associated with poverty, Shafir said. For example, if a fast-food company were to hand out employee work schedules further in advance — as opposed to the 48-hour timeframe it typically uses — then parents would be able to dedicate fewer cognitive resources to the constant management of childcare concerns, leaving them with more resources to devote to other aspects in their lives, including their job performance.

Counteracting stereotypes

Since she came to Princeton 16 years ago, Susan Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and professor of psychology and public affairs, has been researching issues of bias, discrimination and stereotypes.

One area of study involves exploring our perceptions of people as “warm and trustworthy” and “competent” at what they do. Middle-class individuals get high ratings on both counts, while homeless people and undocumented immigrants score low on both counts. Older people are seen as trustworthy but not competent, and rich people are seen as competent but not trustworthy.

In a study published earlier this year, Fiske and graduate student Jillian Swencionis reported that people in the workplace try to appear more competent by acting cold when dealing with their superiors, while superiors play up their warmth when dealing with subordinates. Supervisors and subordinates engage in these behaviors both to disprove stereotypes about themselves and to match what they think about the other person.

Recognizing these warmth-competence tradeoffs in interactions between employees of different ranks could help improve communications within organizations. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in May 2016. Swencionis was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

“People automatically categorize other people by race and gender and age,” Fiske said. “They do this without intention, so it’s not about evil motivation when people act on these associations. It’s kind of a default. As a result, people and organizations have to engage in extraordinary efforts to counteract that proclivity.”

No matter how groundbreaking the research, it is useless to public policy unless it is available to people in a position to implement it. So, Fiske started the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences a few years ago. The journal is affiliated with the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, which does education and advocacy work. Fiske has been the federation’s president and serves on its executive committee.

Bringing policy into the 21st century

In September 2015, President Barack Obama signed an executive order directing federal agencies to draw on emerging research from the field of behavioral science when crafting policies. Obama described the directive as a way to “bring our government into the 21st century.”

Researchers at the Wilson School and in Princeton’s Department of Psychology are helping lead the application of behavioral science to policymaking through their work in government, at think tanks and nongovernmental organizations, and at schools and institutions. The growing demand for these skills led Shafir and several colleagues to cofound ideas42, a nonprofit company devoted to creating behaviorally informed solutions to societal problems.

The Wilson School also is home to a new center launched in spring 2015 and led by Shafir that is focused on applied behavioral science research. In the fall of 2016, the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy launched its inaugural symposium. The center has more than 45 affiliated faculty members, including Alin Coman and Johannes Haushofer, both assistant professors of psychology and public affairs in the Wilson School. The center also has members from 11 departments across campus, including such diverse fields as geosciences, human values, philosophy and African American studies.

“It’s an exciting time,” Fiske said. “I’m a child of the ’60s and ’70s. So for me to be able to have an influence with data on policy is really a dream come true. We wanted to make the world a better place. It’s not so clear that we did, but there’s progress on several fronts.”

Baby steps: Inside the developing brain

Baby Steps

PHOTO BY DENISE APPLEWHITE

AT ONE OF PRINCETON’S NEWEST RESEARCH LABS, the T-shirts only go up to 4T, the art on the walls is done in crayon and the books on the shelves include The Little Mermaid.

Researchers at the Princeton Baby Lab study how babies and young children learn to see, talk and understand the world. The lab, located in the Department of Psychology’s Peretsman Scully Hall, opened this summer and is co-directed by two new additions to the Princeton faculty, assistant professors of psychology Lauren Emberson and Casey Lew-Williams.

Emberson investigates how experience supports learning and early development. She focuses on the development of perceptual abilities such as vision, hearing and multisensory perception. She often uses neuroimaging techniques that let researchers see infants’ brains change as they learn and develop.

“How infants are using their experiences to develop is a huge mystery,” Emberson said. “We’re examining how babies are developing expectations about the world and shape their neural activity almost in real time.”

Lew-Williams examines how babies and young children learn language. His research subjects include children growing up in poverty and children with communication disorders. His studies often involve children listening to language, looking at pictures and watching short videos as researchers track their eye movements.

“The most fundamental, basic science questions I’m interested in are what is learning, how does it happen and how does it happen differently for different children?” Lew-Williams said. “To me, language is a great way to investigate this because language is such an important skill. How does language learning get off the ground in infancy?”

–By Michael Hotchkiss

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Unconscious bias: Research helps break down barriers

Stacey Sinclair

Unconscious bias: Research helps break down barriers, PHOTO BY SAMEER A. KHAN/FOTOBUDDY

STACEY SINCLAIR WAS AWARE OF INEQUALITY AT A YOUNG AGE. ”On some level I was always interested in injustice,” said Sinclair, an associate professor of psychology and African American studies. “As a 7-year-old, I wanted to be the first black female to do everything.”

Today, Sinclair uses the tools of science to peel back the human psyche in search of the causes of racial inequality. In a recent study, she and Drew Jacoby-Senghor, who earned his doctorate in 2014, explored how implicit prejudices affected people’s interactions. Since people tend to group together based on shared characteristics, Sinclair and Jacoby-Senghor wondered if people with the same levels of implicit prejudice — also called unconscious bias — end up in the same circles.

The researchers found that whites with stronger implicit anti-black bias were less motivated to affiliate with whites who have black friends than with whites who have white friends. In other words, people likely to have similar levels of implicit prejudice gravitated toward each other, even if they weren’t consciously aware of it. The study was published in the September 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

For the study, the researchers recruited white participants via an online platform and showed them pairs of faces, one white and the other either white or black. In each case, subjects were asked to rate the friendliness of the white face by answering questions such as, “To what extent do you think you would want to become friends with this person?” Additionally, the subjects’ perceived similarity between themselves and the person on the screen was measured by asking how strongly they agreed with statements such as, “This person and I probably see things in much the same way.”

Sinclair and her collaborators found that white participants with higher implicit bias exhibited higher perceived similarity to the white faces paired with a white friend. This perceived similarity in turn was related to a stronger desire for friendship.

Sinclair’s previous research shows that people adjust their implicit-prejudice level to match the views of the people with whom they interact, a principle called social tuning. This research, which Sinclair outlined in a 2014 review article in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, suggests that egalitarian views can be catching.

Sinclair offers some practical advice based on her research. To make use of social tuning, she advises: “Literally wear your egalitarianism on your sleeve. In policy, what this means is make it clear that this is an environment that truly appreciates diversity, that equality is a value that the individuals in this environment hold. Our research suggests that people’s attitudes will change to be in line with these values relatively effortlessly on their part.”

In awareness of their tendency to seek similarity, Sinclair suggests that people step out of their comfort zone. “When you’re networking, or when you’re at a party, and you’re deciding who to walk up to, if your impulse tells you to go one way, go the other way. If we all did that, it could really change what our networks look like.”

–By Takim Williams

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FOUR PROFESSORS Receive Presidential Science Awards

PECASE award winners

Clockwise from top left: Abigail Doyle, Yael Niv, Ramon von Handel and Rodney Priestley

Four professors received the 2013 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their research careers.

Associate Professor of Chemistry Abigail Doyle, Assistant Professor of Psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute Yael Niv, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Rodney Priestley, and Assistant Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering Ramon van Handel were among the 102 researchers at American institutions selected by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. The winners received their awards at a White House ceremony on April 14, 2014.

“The impressive achievements of these early-stage scientists and engineers are promising indicators of even greater successes ahead,” President Barack Obama said in a release announcing the award. “We are grateful for their commitment to generating the scientific and technical advancements that will ensure America’s global leadership for many years to come.”

The annual award, established in 1996, recognizes researchers’ “pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.”

–By Emily Aronson

DANIEL KAHNEMAN Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman (Photo by Larry Levanti)

Daniel Kahneman, the Eugene Higgins Professor of psychology, emeritus, and a Nobel laureate in economics, is one of 16 people who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor in the United States — in 2013 from President Barack Obama.

The citation for Kahneman issued by the White House reads: “Daniel Kahneman is a pioneering scholar of psychology. After escaping Nazi occupation in World War II, Dr. Kahneman immigrated to Israel, where he served in the Israel Defense Forces and trained as a psychologist. Alongside Amos Tversky, he applied cognitive psychology to economic analysis, laying the foundation for a new field of research and earning the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.”

Deborah Prentice, dean of the faculty and former chair of the psychology department, said she was delighted that Kahneman received this honor. “Danny was also one of the first to see the enormous potential for behavioral-science research to improve public policy,” Prentice said. “Here at Princeton, he created and co-taught the first course on behavioral policy and championed the appointment of many talented behavioral scientists to faculty positions in the Woodrow Wilson School. Behavioral approaches are now gaining in prominence in policy schools, think-tanks and government agencies, thanks in large part to Danny.”

–By the Office of Communications

The social network: Program combats bullying

New laws and policies to address harassment and intimidation in schools are sprouting up in every state. But can laws and polices put a stop to bullying, or do students play a role?

Psychologist Elizabeth Levy Paluck has set out to demonstrate that students can change the climate of a school from one that tolerates bullying to one that promotes positive behavior. She is leading a research program in 58 New Jersey middle schools that harnesses the power of students’ social networks to change behavior and reduce bullying.

Elizabeth Paluck

Elizabeth Levy Paluck, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs, is pursuing research in New Jersey middle schools to test whether it is possible to change social norms regarding bullying by targeting students’ social networks. (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

The project tests the premise that the best way to change social norms is to target the most socially connected people, and then allow the change to diffuse through the group, said Paluck, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs. “People construct their ideas of acceptable behavior by observing others, especially influential individuals,” she said. “We would like to know if we can change the culture of a school by first changing the attitudes and behavior of these individuals.”

Paluck stressed that while some of these students are “popular,” others are the unofficial leaders of non-mainstream social groups organized around a common interest such as skateboarding or glee club.

Paluck is conducting the project, which is supported by the William T. Grant Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and Princeton’s Educational Research Section, with Hana Shepherd, a postdoctoral research associate in the psychology department and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The first step in the project, which began in fall 2012, was to identify a school’s influential students, or “social referents.” The researchers asked the entire student body to fill out a questionnaire listing the other individuals in his or her network. Privacy was preserved via use of anonymous codes. Using a mathematical algorithm, the Paluck team then constructed models of every social network in the school and combed for individuals with lots of connections within networks.

Social network

Elizabeth Levy Paluck, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs, and her team mapped the social networks of middle school students to identify influential individuals (social referents), who were then randomly assigned to either participate or not participate in an intervention program designed to reduce conflict in schools. In a pilot study, the researchers found that students (first-degree and second-degree connections) in the networks of social referents who participated in the antibullying program were less likely to view conflict as acceptable at the school, and were less likely to be disciplined for peer conflict, compared to students in networks of social referents who did not participate in the intervention program. (Original illustration courtesy of Elizabeth Levy Paluck.)

Once identified, some of these well connected individuals were randomly selected to join a group where they learned about bullying prevention and created an intervention program to spread positive social norms through efforts such as student assemblies, posters and wristbands. “It was important that the students design the program, to ensure that it meets their needs,” Paluck said.

Prior to starting the intervention program, the researchers conducted a baseline survey of attitudes toward bullying. At the end of the 2012-13 school year, the team conducted a follow-up survey of attitudes and collected information on behaviors. While the New Jersey results are not yet in, a pilot project in a school in Connecticut found improvements in attitudes about bullying and in reduced incidents of harassment and intimidation.

The much larger New Jersey study should allow the researchers to compare schools that received the intervention to those that did not. Within each school, the researchers can compare the attitudes and behaviors of students who belong to the networks of socially influential students who participated in creating antibullying interventions to students in the networks of influential students who did not participate.

“We need to know whether we changed the climate of conflict, did we set into motion a new expectation of what behaviors are desirable, did we make an overall difference?” Paluck said. “You cannot test this with only one social network, you have to compare to other networks where intervention was not done.”

–By Catherine Zandonella