ideas42 Seminar Series: A Talk with William Elliott

Sep 30, 2016 | By ideas42 in Blog

With the ideas42 Seminar 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 William Elliott of The University of Kansas this week. William founded of the Center on Assets, Education, and Inclusion (AEDI) in KU’s School of Social Welfare. He is a leading researcher in the fields of children’s savings and college debt. However, his research interests are broadly focused on public policies related to issues of economic inequality and social development. After giving a talk to the ideas42 team, William was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on behavioral science:

What drew you to study finance in education?

I really just wanted to find a way to make poor people’s lives better. I grew up poor and saw that success was not all about the amount of effort and ability people have, that access to institutional resources plays a key role in why one person succeeds and another does not. It is not a total sum game, however, where only institutions matter, but they play an important role in success as well as failure. I wanted to figure out how to make institutions more equitable, so that effort and ability would truly determine outcomes.

Tell us about your work in studying student or family behavior in this realm.

My work is about how institutions and the resources they provide augment human effort and ability creating inequity in society. I have two basic theories about the world. First, most people are of average intelligence. In statistics we learn about the bell curve, that data are normally distributed with only a few outliers at either end of the curve. From this perspective, minus the exceptions at either end, the patterns we currently see with regard to children’s academic achievement or economic success, some groups doing really well or others doing really bad is the result of inequitable institutions and to some degree individual effort.

While I cannot name the second theory, I can describe it. Galileo, a very intelligent man by all accounts, spent most of his life figuring out the world was round–something you and I grow up knowing. Others spent their lives trying to come up with how to fly or how to build a computer. These discoveries today are all taken for granted and you could simply google them; you would not have to spend years coming up with the knowledge. The point is, so much of what we know and can know is about where we start off and the resources we have access to, what knowledge we are given. This is increasingly the case in the highly technical and specialized world we live in. Denying people access to basic resources (both knowledge and material) puts them behind, it leaves them unable to compete regardless of their effort and ability. So, when we see systematic patterns where one group is failing and another succeeding, this should raise concern about the equity of our institutions and how these institutions are affecting behavior.

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

You can have two children from the same family and one will work really hard and the other will not. While institutions are extremely important, and society must strive to build equitable institutions, they do not fully explain behavior either, and, in fact, we cannot know which child born will have extreme levels of effort and which will not. Therefore, we cannot say because one child is born into a middle class family and another to a poor family that the middle class child will have more effort. What I draw from this is that society must focus on making institutions equitable and individuals must focus on raising their level of effort and investing in their human capital (i.e., ability). Each is important in determining success; policy likely only can do one well, however, and that is change institutions.

Have you learned anything about human behavior and decision making that has changed the way you think or work?

Not all people are going to exhibit the same level of effort. Some people are going to work much harder than other people, so there will always be differences in who succeeds and who fails. But these patterns will not be systematic in an environment where institutions respond the same to everyone’s use of effort and ability, where institutions provide everyone an equal starting point. Therefore, what I am primarily concerned with is the “real” opportunities people have in life, not the outcomes they achieve.