ideas42 Seminar Series: A Talk with Mario Macis

May 13, 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 leading scholars to share their insights and what inspires their exploration into human behavior.

Our New York office was pleased to host Mario Macis of Johns Hopkins University today. Mario’s research focuses on incentives, pro-social behavior, morally controversial transactions, global health, and labor economics. His work has explored, for example, the effects of providing incentives or compensation for blood donation and body parts. He is currently running a field experiment that taps into people’s social networks in India to improve tuberculosis detection. After giving a talk to the ideas42 team, Mario was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on behavioral science:

What drew you to the study of behavior in economics?

When I was a teenager, I developed a fascination for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes; I read all four novels and fifty-six short stories (the “canon”) multiple times. Holmes was an acute observer of human behavior. In particular, he was convinced that people acted for precise, purposeful reasons, and that people’s motivations could be inferred by their actions. I thought that there was something truly remarkable and powerful about the idea that logic and reasoning could be used to understand why people did what they did, and I realized that I wanted to do just that: learn the tools that would enable me to study human behavior, understand it, and use this understanding to figure out how to improve outcomes in society. That led me to study human behavior, and economics in particular. 

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

A somewhat surprising discovery from my own research was the finding that economic incentives do not necessarily conflict with intrinsic motivation in the context of pro-social behavior. My field experimental work on blood donor incentives in partnership with blood banks (including the American Red Cross) showed that economic incentives increased donations. This contrasted with many previous findings based on surveys and hypothetical scenarios. Appropriately framed incentive items such as gift cards can stimulate life-saving blood donations when and where they are needed; and rewards such as “medals” can also help by leveraging people’s desire for social prestige. At the same time, evidence that incentives work to stimulate the supply of blood and, possibly, other body fluids and parts (e.g., plasma or organs) does not persuade everyone that we should introduce payments or markets in these domains. On the contrary, many people oppose the use of incentives on moral grounds. Ethical concerns are very powerful and deserve to be studied more by economists.

Tell us about your work on incentives for health behavior change

Sometimes people perform certain actions in the absence of explicit rewards, and that is great. In many cases, however, the activities supplied fall short of societal needs. For instance, in many developing countries infectious diseases spread in part because people are reluctant to spread information. Take tuberculosis as an example. About 9 million people worldwide have the disease, and more than one third are unaware or not in treatment. Health workers face high costs of detecting new cases. In part this is because those who are sick do not what to be found due to the stigma associated with being diagnosed, and in part because they are not aware that they have the disease, or they do not know that effective treatment is available (and often free). In an ongoing study, my coauthors and I are studying the effects of financial incentives provided to current TB patients to induce their social connections to get tested for the disease. The key ideas are that existing patients are likely to know other people who have the disease, and that personal referrals could help prospective patients form more realistic expectations about the treatment and the provider. In spite of the potential (and in spite of the fact that people care about the wellbeing of their friends, relatives or co-workers), peer-to-peer referrals are very uncommon; presumably there are personal/social costs of making referrals, including the risk of offending people implying they have TB and the awkwardness to discuss personal health issues. What we are trying to find out with this ongoing research is whether incentives help induce patients to make referrals, by overcoming the personal/social costs.

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

Compared to when I started doing economics, I believe that I now have a much keener awareness of the importance of social norms, social preferences and non-economic drivers of behavior more generally. I also became convinced that a multi- or inter-disciplinary approach is often necessary to understand certain social problems and find solutions. In the context of health, for example, it is clear that many health behaviors are the result of complex interactions between medical factors and behavioral factors, so a partnership between physicians and behavioral scientists is needed if we want to make a real impact. Similarly, my ongoing collaborations with bioethicists have been invaluable in furthering my understanding of the ethical concerns involved in establishing a price mechanism to allocate kidneys for transplantation.

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

Great question! The work of many outstanding behavioral science scholars in the past decades has taught us that “homo economicus” does not exist. My personal take is that there are aspects of homo economicus behavior that we should avoid and aspects that, instead, we should actively embrace. For instance, ignoring social norms (as the stereotypical homo economicus would presumably do) is not a very intelligent way to behave. However, I personally make an effort to emulate homo economicus in overcoming some psychological biases such as the default bias or the status quo bias. When presented with a choice with a pre-selected default I usually take the time to ponder the alternatives and choose what is best for me, which might not coincide with what the “designer” has pre-selected. I realize it’s easier said than done (acquiring and processing information is costly, etc.)…but at least I’m trying!