ideas42 Affiliate Series: A Talk with Heather Schofield

Apr 19, 2016 in Blog

ideas42’s network of academic affiliates represent some of the world’s foremost experts in behavioral science. With the ideas42 Affiliate Series, we invite them to share their insights and what inspires their exploration into human behavior.

Our New York office recently had the pleasure of hosting Heather Schofield– our newest Affiliate an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. She works at the intersection of development, health, and behavioral economics. Some of her research includes the role of health human capital (nutrition, pain management, adequate sleep) in economic productivity, cognitive function, and decision-making and the role of financial and social incentives in promoting healthy behaviors. Before speaking to the ideas42 team about some of her work, Heather took the time to tell us some interesting insights about the applications of behavioral science in the real world.

What drew you to the study of decision-making?

Although a bit counter-intuitive, I think I am often drawn to study decision-making because I believe we often make decisions without a lot of thought. When we don’t put a lot of brain power into a decision, many things about the environment we make the choice in then shape the decision that we, at least nominally, “made.” ​Those factors include “nudge” type factors, but are probably much broader as well. I’m interested to try and understand what some of the less obvious factors shaping our decisions might be, such as nutrition or sleep deprivation.

What’s one of the most surprising discoveries about human behavior?

​Building on the previous question, one of the most surprising discoveries about human behavior for me has been how easy it is to attribute choices to a person rather than to the situation in which they made a choice. We have such a strong innate tendency to attribute decisions to something about the individual ​rather than the context, despite the fact that the context and environment matters enormously. This idea has been around for quite a long time (“fundamental attribution error”) but people are still finding many new and interesting takes on it. For example, one could think of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s idea of “scarcity” through this lens.

Tell us about your work on incentives toward healthy behavior.

​In addition to my work in development, I​ have also been working on understanding the drivers of healthy behaviors here in the US. Since many healthy behaviors have a cost now and a benefit in the future, one idea that has been gaining steam is to help people undertake those effortful or costly activities by providing fairly immediate financial incentives to encourage people to engage with those behaviors. But, of course as behavioral scientists, we realize that we can do better than simply providing a financial incentive; we can leverage people’s decision-making “biases” to make the incentives as effective as possible. For example, we can utilize over-optimism and loss aversion through deposit contracts or draw on social bonds and social incentives to maximize the effectiveness of the financial incentives that are provided.

What have you learned in applying behavioral science that has changed the way you work?

​One ongoing struggle I face in my work is to plan appropriately for how long something will take. ​And, it isn’t just me — the idea that it is really difficult to anticipate the time required to do something has its own name, the planning fallacy. I still haven’t completely solved this issue, but there are strategies that help. First, I try and work both forwards and backwards through the problem, often separated by a day or two. This helps me look at it with fresh eyes and see more of the obstacles which will derail the process. I also find analogies to similar projects or experiences to be a helpful guideline. I try and think of the most similar project I’ve undertaken and consider how long that took and why it took longer than I’d expected.

How do you use behavioral science in your daily life (or recommend that people use behavioral science in their daily lives)?

I like to use strategies were you only need to exert self control once and then it makes a lot of future decisions easier. For example, when I go to the grocery store, if I’m careful in that 20 minutes not to buy too much tempting unhealthy food, then I don’t have to worry about being tempted to eat it later. Everyone always has a lot of “wants” vs. “shoulds” in a day, and the more time you spent agonizing over those trade-offs, the less you enjoy yourself and the more likely you are to give in. So, I find that avoiding those trade-offs by committing yourself in a single moment is often very helpful.