By ideas42

With the ideas42 Seminar Series, we invite leading scholars to share their insights and what inspires their exploration into human behavior.

We were pleased to host Rebecca Ratner, the Dean’s Professor of Marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Her research explores the factors underlying suboptimal consumer decision making and focuses on memory, variety seeking, and the influence of social norms. After giving a talk to the ideas42 team, Rebecca was kind enough to share some of her thoughts on behavioral science:

What drew you to behavioral science?

I’ve been interested in psychology for as long as I can remember. The summer that I graduated from high school, I was living in Bethesda, Maryland and looking for an internship to supplement my hourly work at a nearby bookstore. I reached out to the National Institute of Mental Health, which was based about 15 minutes from where I had grown up, about any possible roles that could be played by a recent high school grad. They had a researcher in their lab of child psychology who was open to having help from someone who hadn’t yet started college; he was doing a large-scale study on children of depressed mothers and wanted help coding interviews and completing other research tasks. I loved the work and have been hooked on research ever since.

In college, my psychology courses, especially in cognitive and social psychology, were my favorites. I found it fascinating to read about experiments in which participants subject to some experimental conditions behaved systematically differently from others. In upper-level classes, I remember being excited to design experiments myself, analyze the results, and then write up what was found and what the implications were. It amazed me to learn that human behavior could be so easily impacted by seemingly small changes in their environment.

In my senior year of college, one of my social psychology professors told me about a job opening as a lab manager in a psychology lab that a former student of his was leaving, and I was immediately interested. The role was in a cognitive psychology lab at Princeton, where the lead faculty member was studying factors that lead people to misremember what information they had been exposed to.

What would you say is one of the most surprising discoveries about human behavior?

There is one classic research finding in social psychology that I love to share with my students. It’s a finding by researchers Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper about how people respond when presented with a large compared to small number of options. The researchers conducted the study in a gourmet food store, where they varied whether a large (24) or small (6) number of jams was displayed. When I ask students in my classes how many of the people walking by they think stopped to look at the display, they correctly guess that more people are drawn to look at the jams when there are a large rather than small number of flavors.

However, when I ask students what percentage of those who came over to look at the jams in fact make a purchase, they are often surprised by the results. Some students guess that more shoppers will make a purchase when they see a large number of jams. That would be an unsurprising outcome, given that with a larger assortment, the shoppers might find more flavors that they like. What students are surprised to learn is that although the large assortments are more attention-grabbing than small assortments, the large assortments are worse at getting people to make a selection among the options. Whereas 30% of the shoppers who went over to the booth with the small assortment made a purchase, that number goes down to 3% for the shoppers who went over to the booth with the large assortment. The work has important implications, as it suggests how important it is to simplify and reduce the number of options when you want people to make a selection (e.g., to invest money in a stock fund rather than failing to invest the money at all).

In your breadth of work, tell us about one of your favorite projects related to driving behavior change.

One of my favorite projects relates to how to encourage people to adopt a healthier diet.  In this project, my colleague Jason Riis and I were interested in the nutrition guideline that the USDA introduced to replace the older food pyramid that Jason and I had grown up with. This original food pyramid guideline specified how many servings a day individuals should eat in each of a number of food groups. The newer guideline (“MyPyramid”) required people to go to a website to get their customized daily nutrition guideline. Depending on the individual’s age, sex, and daily exercise, the website would li­st how many ounces of grains, how many ounces of meat and beans, and how many cups of fruits and vegetables the person should eat across a typical day.

When Jason and I saw this newer guideline, we were concerned about its implicit assumptions: it assumed that people would visit a website to get their customized guideline, remember the specified amounts, and keep track of the amounts consumed across the day. We decided to test the premise that people would be able to remember the recommended amount in each food group to consume across the day.  We presented people with these customized numbers or a much simpler guideline (“Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal”). As we predicted, people’s ability to remember the customized numbers was very low, even immediately after we had asked them to study the numbers.  Their ability to remember the simpler guideline was much better. Given that what people remember will guide what they choose to do (and eat), these memory failures have important implications for behavior change. Our findings were input to USDA’s decision to replace MyPyramid with the easier-to-remember MyPlate guideline.

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

Both these projects I’ve described have a similar message: Keep it simple. The Iyengar and Lepper work showed the importance of keeping the number of options small, and my work with Riis showed the importance of keeping the content easy-to-remember.

I remember several years ago talking with small groups of people working in start-ups who wanted to apply behavioral insights. It was clear that the insights they were most likely to apply were those that were simple for them to understand and use. For example, a simple insight that they felt they could apply would be to tell people that many others engage in a given behavior. Another simple insight that they felt they could apply was to set the desired behavior as the default, a behavior that people could opt out of if they chose to do so.

Sometimes research findings are more nuanced than this, as researchers identify various factors (referred to as moderating variables) on which a basic effect depends. These moderating factors can be important in the real world, and are of interest to many researchers, but often when looking at which behavioral concepts to apply to have real world impact, a simple, straightforward effect can be easiest to use.  In my own research, I aim for the key findings to be easy to remember.

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

What I have started to apply to my own life is to make things automatic when possible. For example, when selecting among college savings plans, I knew that I would not remember to change the allocations to be more conservative as the dates of our kids’ high school graduations approached. For this reason, I choose to invest money in plans that use an age-adjusted allocation, which automatically makes the investments more conservative as each kid gets closer to starting college. My research on limitations in what people can remember, combined with others’ research on the benefits of automatic changes to investment portfolios (e.g., Thaler and Benartzi’s Save More Tomorrow), has led me to want to make my own savings decisions more automatic.