Category Archives: Richard Thaler

Social Capital Nudges [UPDATED 3/27/13]

In Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler‘s wonderful book Nudge (2008), they note that individuals’ choices can be influenced by countless factors that people are unaware of (where food is positioned in a cafeteria or a grocery store, what the default settings are on an iPhone, whether programs like retirement contributions are opt-out or opt-in, etc.).  The authors advocate libertarian paternalism: that American leaders be choice architects, trying to arrange society so that Americans maximize good outcomes, but enabling Americans to opt out of these arrangements if they disagree.

Reading the book made me wonder how “choice architects” trying to maximize social capital (social interaction) or civic engagement in society would arrange affairs.

1) Physical space: Architects, as Nudge points out, often are choice architects.  Architects can influence anything from how comfortable we are in our homes or communities to how efficiently we move, to how much we interact.  On the latter, think about front porches or stoops, walkable streets, vibrant public squares, or farmers’ markets as only a few examples of this.  The Forum at Harvard Kennedy School (where public and private leaders come to give talks) was designed based on the Roman Forum and Greek agorae.  It has little nooks along staircases that take you to higher floors, maximizing the chances for interacting, encountering others and conversing.  Of course there are limits to this, as can be seen in “Social Capital and New Urbanism: Leading a Civic Horse to Water?

2) Asking people their intentions in advanceNudge points out that asking people about their intentions (“priming”), increases their chance of doing so.  See this earlier blog post about asking people of their intention to vote to increase voting.   One can also increase the likelihood of voting by having them draw a map of how to get from their home to their voting location.  One wonders what other civic actions we could effectively prime: volunteering, attending a public meeting that discussed town affairs, joining a group, attending a block party, etc.

3) Social norming:  I’ve written about this earlier, but publicizing that most people do things differently than individuals expect can nudge people toward the actual norm. For example, administrators  found that describing the actual infrequency of  college binge drinking (lower than what most college students had believed), lowered the rate of binge drinking further among those who were binge drinking. What are the opportunities to capitalize on this for civic engagement.  We could observe that 40% of Americans attend a house of worship weekly or more frequently and close to three quarters attend at least monthly. We could tell Americans that 62 million fellow Americans volunteer, contributing 8 billion hours of volunteer service worth $162 billion.  And there are undoubtedly other facts we should bring to their attention to increase civic behavior.  [One does have to worry that the folks who are doing a civic behavior far more than the average may be induced to lower their behavior.]  [For an article on social norming, see Tina Rosenberg, 'The Destructive Influence of Imaginary Peers", New York Times, 3/27/13]

Another example of this is OPower that is trying to induce people to use less electricity by pointing out how energy conscious their neighbors are.

4) Offer rewards for civic behavior?  We might provide a deduction on health insurance rates for those participating in community groups (a la Samaritan Ministries’ self-insurance or discounts for health club memberships). Similarly, neighborhood stores might offer discounts or coupons for students engaged in regular community service.  Tax deductions are likely more controversial.

5) Civility check: Sunstein/Thaler recommend in Nudge an invention that detects an uncivil e-mail that a user is considering sending and asks the user if he/she is willing to have a 12 hour cooling off period and see if he/she still wants to send the message as is.  [This is reminiscent of Google Mail Goggles which was set up to avoid people sending embarrassing e-mails when drunk.]

6) Get civic commitments up front: Nudge highlights the effectiveness of getting individuals to commit to take action and depositing monthly checks with a third party.  For every month that this commitment is not honored, a group reviled by this individual gets a contribution.  So for example, an advocate of women’s right to choose would deposit checks with this third party made out to the National Right to Life.  She would  vow to attend a book group every month or conversely to attend a church committee’s meetings each month.  Any month that she did attend, her check for that month would be ripped up.  Any month that she didn’t attend, her check would be sent to the NRL.

7) Using groups to reinforce promises:  Many studies have found that commitments made to groups are more likely to be honored.  That is why AlAnon or Weight Loss Groups or Self-Help groups have groups at their core.  We should pursue opportunities like the New Year’s Nudge to encourage people to stick to commitments and might have a Pledge Day where people pledged to take certain pro-civic or pro-social capital activities over the next year.

8) Hanging around other civic types: In James Fowler’s  and Nick Christakis’ Connected, they detail how many social practices are spread through social networks (drinking, depression, obesity, etc.).  It appears from their research that hanging around others who are civic works in the same way;  part of this effect may be the “social norming” effect described earlier, that being around lots of civicly active people changes one’s reference group for citizenship in the same was as being surrounded by overweight people changes one’s sense of how heavy or thin one is.

9) Behavioral placement.  Public health advocates like Jay Winsten were very successful in getting television shows to popularize behavior like “designated drivers.”  More recently, television programs have interwoven wellness behaviors (like exercise or eating right) into show themes.  These may be more effective since a viewer observes a character that the viewer likes or respect undertaking these behaviors.  (Note: it may not be advisable to have Homer Simpson displaying the civic behavior you want to encourage.)

10) metering people’s health and happiness benefits from civic engagement.  Not sure that the studies of the links between social capital and health and social capital and happiness are finely enough calibrated, but it is clear that people alter their behavior in response to more immediate feedback (e.g., the instantaneous MPG feedback on Toyota Priuses or on some GPS devices, the smart meter readouts in some homes of how much electricity they are using instantaneously).  What if there were an iPhone app where you daily plugged in your amount of socializing, volunteering, attendance at public meetings  on town affairs and club going? The iPhone app would generate an instantaneous readout with a face with differing expressions of how well you were doing (with a scowl showing the most displeasure and a smile showing the most) or a stylized body that looked healthier or less healthy depending on your habits.  [A Brazilian bar had an interesting experiment to make people aware of the hidden costs of drunk driving.]

11) Positive deviance: Learn from outliers so others can do the same.  We might do more studies of places that are unusually civic (like Minnesota) to understand what it is that they do differently from communities where there is far less civic behavior and whether nudges could help spur people towards the positively deviant (e.g. very civic community).

12) Setting up defaults.  Here is a graphic on how best to choose a default (not focused on civic engagement).  I haven’t thought of good ideas of how defaults could be used to boost civic engagement, but I’m sure this could be used more.

13) Take advantage of fact that people are  more willing to increase their civic behavior in the future. Sunstein and Thaler capitalize on research that shows that people give more when asked to make a donation in the future than if asked to make it today; they propose a project called “Give More Tomorrow“.  I haven’t seen any research on this but one wonders whether “Volunteer More Tomorrow” or “Coach Little League Tomorrow” or other civic or community engagement  would show similar patterns.

14) Publicize non-civic behavior.  “In a 2005 study, Alan Gerber of Yale got Michigan voters to increase their turnout an amazing 8.6% with a single peer-pressure mailer that listed the previous voting records of their neighbors and noted that a follow-up would be sent indicating who voted this time. (The Obama [presidential] campaign actually priced out a similar mailer but decided not to risk a backlash.)” (From Nudge Blog)

We welcome your thoughts about what nudges might have the biggest impact on increasing social capital or civic engagement/volunteering.   Sunstein and Thaler note that nudges are most helpful where: a) the consequences of bad decisions are delayed (true for many social capital decisions); b) the decision is complex or confusing; c) where you face overwhelming number of choices (true of how we spend our free time); d) where people would benefit from greater feedback from their decisions (true of many social capital decisions); and e) where such decisions are infrequent.

Read  long interview with Thaler here (Fall 2009 Yale School of Management), BBC interview (2009), a To The Point roundtable and Firedoglake conversation.

See “Cass Sunstein Wants to Nudge Us” (NYT Magazine section, 5/16/10)

Read the Nudge Blog.

Priming people to vote

Priming you to vote for Obama? (Obama mosaic of people image by tsevis)

Priming you to vote for Obama? (Obama mosaic of people image by tsevis)

Priming is the influencing of an outcome by exposing people to some stimulus in advance (a picture, a concept, an advertisement) that then influences their subsequent outcome in systematic ways.  Nobelist Daniel Kahneman and others talk about the pervasiveness of this effect and how it can influence voting…

KAHNEMAN: “…We are all aware that our behavior and our thoughts and feelings are highly context-dependent: none of us is quite the same person at home and in the office, in bed or in the subway. We are used to the context-dependency of our behavior and we have stories that make sense of it—social pressure, norms etc. What we are learning from the priming-anchoring effects is that context-dependency is mediated in part by multiple subtle cues of which we are not necessarily aware. “

The effects according to Kahneman are systematic and pervasive (with a HOST of examples).  The magnitude of the effect is not negligible but not overpowering.  And the effect doesn’t always persist.  It happens without us being aware of the prime (and even consciously explaining that the priming influence did NOT influence our behavior), but it affects us nonetheless, unless on issues on which we have irrevocably made up our mind.

This dialogue is taken from a fascinating conversation on Edge 262 with W. Daniel Hillis, Kahneman, Nathan Myhrvold, Richard Thaler, Elon Musk, France LeClerc, Salar Kamangar, Anne Treisman, Sendhil Mullainathan, Jeff Bezos, and Sean Parker.

MYHRVOLD: You can make Democrats and Republicans by threatening them with death? That’s fascinating!

KAHNEMAN: Those effects would be small at the margin, but there are those effects that are small at the margin that can change election results.

You call and ask people ahead of time, “Will you vote?”. That’s all. “Do you intend to vote?”. That increases voting participation substantially, and you can measure it. It’s a completely trivial manipulation, but saying ‘Yes’ to a stranger, “I will vote” …

MYHRVOLD: But…suppose you had the choice of calling up and saying, “Are you going to vote?”, so you prime them to vote, versus exhorting them to vote.

KAHNEMAN: The prime could very well work better than the exhortation because exhortation is going to induce resistance, whereas the prime ‚the mild embarrassment causes you to make what feels like a commitment, and the commitment, if it’s sufficiently precise, is going to have an effect on behavior.

THALER: If you ask them when they’re going to vote, and how they’re going to get there, that increases voting.

KAHNEMAN: And where….Here is a study, this one will demonstrate that those effects are not so weak. You look for support for school bonds, and what you look for is where were the polling stations. When the polling station is in a school, you get measurable effects on the support for school bonds. They increase. That is non-trivial, it’s in the real world, except that you have something that is focused, you know what the direction is. You expose a lot of people to the prime, and you observe the behavior, and it’s quite measurable.

THALER: And to answer your question, on that one, my recollection is the magnitude is something like 2 or 3 percent. It’s not a huge effect, but a noticeable effect.

KAHNEMAN: Yes, that’s what you would expect.

MULLAINATHAN: There is another response to this question. And I’ve struggled a lot with this question. If these effects are so big, how can it be, right?

There is another more controversial response to that, which is, let’s say that the two phenomena that are opposing each other is that people are relatively consistent and stable, but these effects suggest a lot of instability. One resolution to that is that, in fact, people are not consistent and stable …… and, the bias is that we think ourselves and others are consistent and stable when we’re not. There is good evidence that if you take even something as simple as stated preference for Democrat, Republican, test-retest validity on these things is tiny, risk aversion measures have tiny test-retest validity. One possible resolution control of this is that the mistake is on our end in presuming stable interpersonal characteristics.

KAHNEMAN: That’s a beautiful way of putting it, because one of the things that psychologists have been exercising over and over for decades is the relative impact of personality, if you will, or character or temperament—internal factors as against environmental factors in the control of behavior. We have a hugely powerful bias against the environment as a determinant of behavior. We tend to believe that somebody is behaving that way because he wants to behave that way, because he tends to behave that way, because that’s his nature. It turns out that the environmental effects on behavior are a lot stronger than most people expect.

KAHNEMAN: …Another condition is a pile of Monopoly money on a neighboring table. What would you guess, by the way? Those of you who have read it shouldn’t guess, but can you guess? I was stunned by the result, which I wouldn’t have predicted. But can you guess what priming people with money will do? They don’t want help. They’re on their own. They also don’t want to give help. You’ve got very clever ways of manipulating that, of observing that, but my favorite is the experimenter that comes in clutching a batch of pencils, and the pencils drop on the floor. The dependent variable of the study, the number of pencils the person picks up, is fewer if there is money on that screen saver.

MYHRVOLD: [On effect of playing Monopoly in advance]…Makes them Democrats?

HILLIS: Republican.

KAHNEMAN: It’s closer to making them Republican. It makes them individualists. And it’s quite deep, and very unexpected. It doesn’t make them good or bad, it just makes them different.

Here is the whole conversation on Edge 262.

Note: in another recent priming example relevant to social capital, scientists found that you feel warmer to someone you just met if you are holding a hot cup of coffee rather than a cold beverage. Not kidding…See study by Lawrence Williams (Univ. of Colorado) and John Bargh of Yale here in Science magazine.

For an interesting post not on priming, but on getting individuals to make commitments to voting, see the Freakonomics blog post on how to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the voting process through enforcable commitments to vote in Ian Ayres’ “A Political Do Not Call List“.