ideas42 Affiliate Series: A Talk with Alison Buttenheim

Jan 25, 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 Alison Buttenheim – our newest Affiliate and Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Alison’s research explores the use of behavioral economic principles (including financial incentives and intrinsic rewards) to encourage behavior change and take-up of preventive care services in the area of maternal-child health. After sharing some preliminary results from her work on a vector control campaign in Peru, Alison offered us her fascinating perspectives on why behavioral science holds so much promise in the health space:

What drew you to the field of behavioral science?

I trained as a public health person. There are a lot of great frameworks, theories, and methods in public health on the social and behavioral side that tell you about how people form intentions. But there’s such a big gap between people’s intentions and their behavior. I didn’t really have the tools I wanted to address that gap. Behavioral science really offers a lot of those tools. I came to Penn at a time that the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics was taking off. It was a very opportune time for me to learn that new toolkit.

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

There are so many interesting insights and discoveries in the field of behavioral science. One that has really struck me all along is this idea of two selves. Whether it’s a “hot” self or a “cold” self, a “now” self or a “future” self, it’s fascinating to me that those two selves can have such different priorities and make such different decisions that have impacts on our financial well-being or physical well-being. Leveraging the idea of those two selves to design interventions that close that intention-behavior gap, I see as a very exciting opportunity.

How can behavioral science be applied to improve maternal-child health?

What really stands out is that we have all these evidence-based practices. We know how to keep moms and babies healthy. We know about vaccination, how to prevent pneumonia, how to prevent diarrheal disease, how to keep moms safe during and after pregnancy. But a lot of these evidence-based practices aren’t taken up at a large scale in the field. Some of that might be supply issues or health care services issues, but a lot of it is demand and people’s choices around care-seeking in the home. That’s where I think behavioral science can really bring a lot to the table: recognizing these evidence-based practices, seeing where there’s a gap in take-up – either at the individual level or at the community level – and designing interventions to close that gap.

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

My training is in observational methods – demography, epidemiology – where we see what’s going on in the natural world and hope to draw some inferences about that through different methods. Behavioral science has offered me help in thinking a lot more about interventions: in designing and testing interventions. I did a lot of evaluation work previously, but not much in designing my own interventions or running large-scale, pragmatic randomized field trials. They don’t have to go hand in hand; you can do behavioral science without the experimentation, but it really seems to be rigorous way to build evidence.

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

I get asked quite a lot about the nudges I impose on myself to change my behavior. I have a lot around my physical activities and daily work habits as an academic. I try to go to a bootcamp class in my neighborhood several times a week. I try to structure both incentives for myself and social pressure so I get to that class. My buddies and I text each other at midnight saying “you’re gonna be there at 6AM, right?” – once you know they’re going, you have to go, too. I also have some really simple stuff like putting my sneakers by the door or signing up ahead of time to pay for a bunch of classes so that every class you go to is cheaper… straightforward stuff but it makes a difference. In terms of my writing as an academic – I have a lot of complicated rewards systems. I pay myself to do chunks of writing, rewarding myself with things that are meaningful to me that I can only get through diligent writing.