Making the Case for Behavioral Science in Policy Design

Posted in Projects

The BIAS Report

Many social programs for poor people require participants to make active decisions and go through a series of steps in order to benefit from them. These steps can include deciding which programs to apply to, completing forms, attending meetings, showing proof of eligibility, and arranging travel and child care.

Do such hassles matter? Given that the potential benefits of participating in these programs so vastly outweigh the hassles imposed by these requirements, most policymakers would argue that their impacts on program uptake and engagement is likely to be minimal.

Psychologists and behavioral economists disagree. Research suggests something quite counter-intuitive: such apparently trivial requirements may have tremendous effects on program participation and the extent to which people benefit from them. In practice, many people who are eligible for programs procrastinate over filling out forms, are confused about requirements, or get overwhelmed by the variety of choices offered, resulting in a failure to enroll. Others may drop out midway because they cannot keep up with appointments, documents, or related participation requirements.

This focus on the powerful influence of small program details on their uptake and use is just one example of how a deeper understanding of human behavior, and the assumptions of program designers about what moves humans to behave in certain ways, can lead to innovative ideas about ways to improve program effectiveness.

The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sought to apply such behavioral insights to programs that serve poor families in the United States. The project, conducted by MDRC in partnership with ideas42, closely examined existing programs to identify these types of small, but potentially influential, behavioral bottlenecks that get in the way of maximizing program impacts and can do so without increasing overall program costs. The ultimate goal of the project is to learn how tools from behavioral science can be used to improve the well-being of low-income children, adults, and families by making changes to existing programs. Click here to read an evaluation of the initial outcomes of the BIAS project.