Every day, working with a wide range of partners around the world, we use behavioral science to address complex social problems. And each year, we take a moment to reflect on this work, what we’ve learned, and how to build on this knowledge going forward.
As 2021 draws to a close, here are five takeaways from our work this year.
Design is (still) crucial for truly improving access to relief programs.
High levels of fines and fees imposed by traffic courts are a major strain on low-income drivers. California recently instituted a new online system, MyCitations, allowing drivers to request a reduced fine without having to go to court. This can provide relief to people experiencing financial hardship, but use of the system was initially low.
It’s certainly not the first time a useful program or service has gone significantly underused. Fortunately, finding and addressing barriers that suppress uptake is a classic application for behavioral design. We uncovered a number of behavioral barriers and redesigned key communications materials to help more people learn about the MyCitations system, complete an application, and resolve their fines.
Some of these materials have already been implemented systemwide, and others we’ll evaluate in 2022. At scale across California, the MyCitations system would serve over half a million people each year who receive traffic violations, and even more across all infraction types—underscoring the impact of systems design on real people’s lives.
Empowering participants as peer advocates can encourage program uptake.
An unplanned pregnancy during adolescence can dramatically impact a girl’s health and economic future, yet use of modern family planning services among adolescents remains low in many places around the world. Research has repeatedly shown that across many contexts, girls often don’t perceive themselves to have agency in matters concerning sex, family planning, and their reproductive futures. With this in mind, we sought to develop solutions which would put more adolescent girls in the role of advocates for family planning within their peer groups.
In Uganda, we created a refer-a-friend program and innovative materials for clinics. The monthly number of adolescent clients increased on average by 45% (5.4 more per clinic, on average). This suggests that nearly 2,000 adolescents became new family planning users as a result of the intervention during the six months of implementation.
These novel designs were created with girls’ agency in mind–centering them as both active participants in and recipients of the program. Findings were published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, and we are exploring ways to expand their reach through other family planning service providers.
Making entrepreneurship more inclusive takes care—and it’s well worth it.
In 2021 we were thrilled to welcome our first cohort of entrepreneurs to our Venture Studio as part of a broader initiative to tackle inequality and mobility in the United States called Shared Prosperity Catalyst. Our team has been supporting these talented problem-solvers as they build scalable businesses to address excess costs of poverty. We look forward to sharing more about their innovative solutions in 2022.
In the meantime, we reflected on the insights from our entrepreneur recruitment process, which we carefully designed to ensure that we were fostering inclusion in every aspect of the process, starting with the application itself . These insights—including designing for scarcity, bolstering transparency, and building in several features to combat individual unconscious biases—can be put to work by any organization seeking to revamp recruitment processes with an eye toward reducing bias and recruiting for lived experience. The process built on our report that proposed more equitable workplace norms, laid out evidence-based solutions, and suggested new behavioral strategies to close the wage gap.
As we recruit more entrepreneurs to solve complex challenges in the coming months, we aim to continue building on these practices.
Equipping practitioners with the behavioral design approach can take proven interventions to new contexts.
We’ve spent the last decade working with dozens of postsecondary partners to develop behavioral solutions that help students get to and through college. We’ve developed effective interventions, but sending our experts to one or two schools at a time limits the number of students we can reach.
This year we took the next step to grow our impact and the adoption of proven behavioral insights to help millions of college students across the U.S. with the launch of the Student Success Academy. Through these trainings, we aim to equip the people who know their students and their schools best with tools to develop contextually relevant, behaviorally informed programs, systems, and processes.
In the first few months of this initiative, nearly 200 people from 40+ different colleges, universities, and non-profits participated in the program—and we look forward to working with even more to make the behavioral approach a ubiquitous feature of innovation in higher education.
To truly tackle inequality, we must first change the narrative.
False narratives about poverty are deeply ingrained in our societies. They have extensive impact on policies and programs. Narratives about poverty are often at the heart of the failures that plague even well-meaning programs, such as application processes full of hassles that place an administrative burden on prospective participants, the imposition of sludge such as work requirements, and stigma that can suppress participation and access in the first place.
Program and policy design based on harmful narratives is destined to fail the very people they are meant to serve. That’s why we launched new initiatives to better understand and then fundamentally change narratives in several large U.S. cities such as New York City, Oakland, and Washington, D.C. This work explores ways to shift poverty narratives at a local level through targeted campaigns leveraging behavioral science research, and crucially, the lived expertise of people in the communities we are seeking to serve.
With a deep understanding of cognitive biases, coupled with our expertise in designing solutions for contexts of chronic scarcity and the partnership of local communities, we can shift harmful, false poverty narratives and create a path for programs and social policy that are more effective and generous.
There’s always more to learn about applying behavioral science across the issues we focus on to make the world more equitably healthy, wealthy, sustainable, and just. Keep reading the blog to stay up-to-date on the latest insights from behavioral science and the continuation of this work in 2022.