5 Impactful Behavioral Insights from 2018

Dec 19, 2018 | By Liana Johnson in Blog

A significant part of our work at ideas42 is learning, constantly, about people—how they make decisions and how their actions are impacted by the world around them. Through a deeper understanding about our often-quirky tendencies, we can more effectively design solutions that can positively impact the lives of millions of people.

In this process, each year we glean a few more insights about behavior through designing, refining, and rigorously testing new solutions to social problems. As 2018 draws to a close, we’re looking back at some of the most impactful behavioral insights of our year—insights that are impactful not only because we learned more about how people act in real-life contexts, but because of their potential for benefiting more people in the future.

We (and others, we hope) will continue to use and improve upon the following behavioral insights to make the world’s programs, policies, systems, and products better reflect the way we as humans actually behave—and in turn make the world…


…more just

Reminding people to attend their court date can prevent unnecessary warrants

In New York City, approximately 130,000 people each year miss their court dates after they’ve been issued a summons citation. Summon citations are instructions to show up in court in response to a low level offense such as littering or drinking in public. These missed appearances represent nearly 41% of all summons cases in the city. Regardless of the severity of an offense, failure to appear in court automatically results in the issuance of an arrest warrant, which has clear (and often cascading) negative repercussions on an individual’s life. It may appear at first glance that people who don’t appear in court consciously weigh these consequences and choose not to show up, but often there’s a whole host of hidden behavioral barriers, including the fact that many people aren’t even aware that these familiar pink tickets are actually a summons to appear in court.

However, with our redesigned summons form that makes the consequences of failing to appear clearer, coupled with behaviorally informed text messages reminding recipients of their scheduled date, the failure-to-appear rate in NYC dropped from 41% to 26%—preventing tens of thousands of unnecessary warrants (and potential arrests).

This success makes a strong case for applying thoughtful, low-cost behavioral design to other forms and reminders for government processes that are struggling with low response rates, which can improve outcomes for both residents and agencies.

Read more about innovations in our work on the NYC summons process.

…more financially resilient

One-time, actionable interventions are good for financial health

Managing finances is an ongoing (read: never-ending) process that has a real impact on people’s well-being, now and in the future. There are many interventions out there designed to help people save more, but sustaining that behavior over the long-term can be challenging.

This year, we evaluated a second iteration of The Financial Health Check—a brief, one-time phone consultation that facilitates follow-through for people in real time and enables them to set up automatic savings transfers. This pilot was offered to members of a major credit union, and participants had 34% more net savings transactions one year later than those who didn’t have access to the program.

One simple action—setting up a phone consultation—that in turn automated follow up actions helped people perform more savings transactions, rather than requiring them to remember every week or every month to save. This insight could have implications for other financial health programs seeking to help people save more continuously.

Read more about The Financial Health Check.

…more sustainable

A 7-cent tax prompted many people to ditch plastic bags at checkout

In 2015, Chicago banned chain stores from providing single-use plastic bags in order to reduce waste. In reality, this led stores to switch to thicker reusable plastic bags that were exempt from the ban, which were then used no differently than the thinner, single-use bags. Clearly, that was not the city’s intended effect.

When the city repealed the ban and instead placed a 7-cent tax on single-use plastic bags, we conducted an analysis to determine if the tax changed consumer behavior in a way that could reduce plastic waste. It did.

Average disposable bag use dropped by about 42% a few months after the tax was implemented, and these effects held up even one year after the tax was first introduced. The use of reusable bags—or no bags at all—increased. Though 7 cents may sound insignificant, it was enough to invoke loss aversion and change residents’ behavior, suggesting that small taxes can be effectively employed for beneficial environmental goals.

Read more about encouraging shoppers to skip the bag.

…more generous

People tend to donate more money to charity when they set goals

A group of Americans we surveyed thought their neighbors should give around 6% of their salary to charity each year. But in practice, Americans donate an average of 3%. While many people are inherently generous and want to give, it isn’t top-of-mind very often.

In one experiment, we incorporated goal-setting into a workplace giving platform. Employees were prompted to set a giving goal. They were then provided feedback via a progress bar and reminded of their goal in December. In the last six weeks of the year, we found a 7% increase in dollars donated compared to a control group, leading to a $150,000 boost in cumulative giving.

This suggests that encouraging generosity is not merely a matter of telling people they should give more (which they may already want to do), but equipping them with the tools to plan and follow through.

Read more about fostering charitable giving.

Bonus: …with more social good

A decade of behavioral innovation adds up

2018 marked 10 years since ideas42 was created out of a small lab at Harvard. When we looked back on a decade of designing behavioral innovations for social good, it became clearer than ever that behavioral science can truly impact people’s lives around the world. From redesigning a retirement account statement—received by 21 million Mexicans annually—to help people avoid poverty as they grow older, to reframing HIV risks for South African teens, to helping more American students stay in college, perhaps one of the most important insights from our first decade is that behavioral science can be harnessed as a proven and powerful force for real, tangible good. And we have our sights set even higher for the future.

Read more in our Impact Report.

There’s always more to learn about human behavior and how it can improve lives. Check out our five favorite behavioral insights of 2017 for a refresher, and keep reading the blog in 2019 to stay up-to-date on the latest insights from behavioral science.