COVID-19 interventions: what behavioural scientists should – and shouldn’t – be advising government on

Article by Adam Oliver: “Behavioural scientists study human behaviour, which is complex, with different phenomena driving people in different directions, and with even the same phenomena driving people in different directions depending on timing and context. When it comes to assessing the possible threat of a pandemic at its beginning, behavioural scientists simply cannot predict with any degree of accuracy whether or not people are over or underreacting. That said, behavioural scientists do have a potentially important role to play in any present and future infectious disease pandemic response, but first I will expand a little on those aspects of a pandemic where their advice is perhaps a little more circumspect.

Scientific expertise is normally focussed within very specific domains, and yet the relevant outcomes – health, social, and economic-related – of an event such as a pandemic involve considerations that extend far beyond the range of any individual’s area of competence. The pronouncements from a behavioural scientist on whether a government ought to impose policies with such far reaching implications as a national lockdown should thus be treated with a healthy degree of scepticism. To use an analogy, if a person experiences a problem with his or her car and doesn’t possess the skills to fix it, s/he will seek the expertise of a motor mechanic. However, this does not mean that a mechanic has the requisite skills to manage effectively General Motors…

My suggestion is for behavioural scientists to leave the judgments on which interventions ought to be introduced to those appointed to balance all relevant considerations, and instead focus on assessing how the introduced interventions might be made more effective with input from their knowledge of behavioural science. There are, of course, many domains of policy – indeed, perhaps all domains of policy – where behavioural science expertise can be usefully deployed in this way, including in relation to interventions intended to get the economy moving again, in securing volunteering behaviours to help the vulnerable, to encourage people to report and escape from domestic abuse, etc. But in terms of assessing policy effectiveness, perhaps the most visible ways in which behavioural scientists have thus far been involved in the pandemic response is in relation to interventions intended to limit the spread of, and enhance resistance to, the virus: i.e. handwashing, social distancing, mask wearing, voluntary testing, and vaccine uptake….(More)”.

Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know

Book edited by Ralph Hertwig and Christoph Engel: “The history of intellectual thought abounds with claims that knowledge is valued and sought, yet individuals and groups often choose not to know. We call the conscious choice not to seek or use knowledge (or information) deliberate ignorance. When is this a virtue, when is it a vice, and what can be learned from formally modeling the underlying motives? On which normative grounds can it be judged? Which institutional interventions can promote or prevent it? In this book, psychologists, economists, historians, computer scientists, sociologists, philosophers, and legal scholars explore the scope of deliberate ignorance.

Drawing from multiple examples, including the right not to know in genetic testing, collective amnesia in transformational societies, blind orchestral auditions, and “don’t ask don’t tell” policies), the contributors offer novel insights and outline avenues for future research into this elusive yet fascinating aspect of human nature…(More)”.

Nudges: Four reasons to doubt popular technique to shape people’s behavior

Article by Magda Osman: “Throughout the pandemic, many governments have had to rely on people doing the right thing to reduce the spread of the coronavirus – ranging from social distancing to handwashing. Many enlisted the help of psychologists for advice on how to “nudge” the public to do what was deemed appropriate.

Nudges have been around since the 1940s and originally were referred to as behavioural engineering. They are a set of techniques developed by psychologists to promote “better” behaviour through “soft” interventions rather than “hard” ones (mandates, bans, fines). In other words, people aren’t punished if they fail to follow them. The nudges are based on psychological and behavioural economic research into human behaviour and cognition.

The nudges can involve subtle as well as obvious methods. Authorities may set a “better” choice, such as donating your organs, as a default – so people have to opt out of a register rather than opt in. Or they could make a healthy option more attractive through food labelling.

But, despite the soft approach, many people aren’t keen on being nudged. During the pandemic, for example, scientists examined people’s attitudes to nudging in social and news media in the UK, and discovered that half of the sentiments expressed in social media posts were negative…(More)”.

Embrace Complexity Through Behavioral Planning

Article by Ruth Schmidt and Katelyn Stenger: “…Designing for complexity also requires questioning assumptions about how interventions work within systems. Being wary of three key assumptions about persistence, stability, and value can help behavioral designers recognize changes over time, complex system dynamics, and oversimplified definitions of success that may impact the effectiveness of interventions.

When behavioral designers overlook these assumptions, the solutions they recommend risk being short-sighted, nonstrategic, and destined to be reactive rather than proactive. Systematically confronting and planning for these projections, on the other hand, can help behavioral designers create and situate more resilient interventions within complex systems.

In a recent article, we explored why behavioral science is still learning to grapple with complexity, what it loses when it doesn’t, and what it could gain by doing so in a more strategic and systematic way. This approach—which we call “behavioral planning”—borrows from business strategy practices like scenario planning that play out assumptions about plausible future conditions to test how they might impact the business environment. The results are then used to inform “roughly right” directional decisions about how to move forward…(More)”

How behavioral science could get people back into public libraries

Article by Talib Visram: “In October, New York City’s three public library systems announced they would permanently drop fines on late book returns. Comprised of Brooklyn, Queens, and New York public libraries, the City’s system is the largest in the country to remove fines. It’s a reversal of a long-held policy intended to ensure shelves stayed stacked, but an outdated one that many major cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, and Dallas, had already scrapped without any discernible downsides. Though a source of revenue—in 2013, for instance, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) racked up $1.9 million in late fees—the fee system also created a barrier to library access that disproportionately touched the low-income communities that most need the resources.

That’s just one thing Brooklyn’s library system has done to try to make its services more equitable. In 2017, well before the move to eliminate fines, BPL on its own embarked on a partnership with Nudge, a behavioral science lab at the University of West Virginia, to find ways to reduce barriers to access and increase engagement with the book collections. In the first-of-its-kind collaboration, the two tested behavioral science interventions via three separate pilots, all of which led to the library’s long-term implementation of successful techniques. Those involved in the project say the steps can be translated to other library systems, though it takes serious investment of time and resources….(More)”.

Design for Social Innovation: Case Studies from Around the World

Book edited By Mariana Amatullo, Bryan Boyer, Jennifer May and Andrew Shea: “The United Nations, Australia Post, and governments in the UK, Finland, Taiwan, France, Brazil, and Israel are just a few of the organizations and groups utilizing design to drive social change. Grounded by a global survey in sectors as diverse as public health, urban planning, economic development, education, humanitarian response, cultural heritage, and civil rights, Design for Social Innovation captures these stories and more through 45 richly illustrated case studies from six continents.

From advocating to understanding and everything in between, these cases demonstrate how designers shape new products, services, and systems while transforming organizations and supporting individual growth.

How is this work similar or different around the world? How are designers building sustainable business practices with this work? Why are organizations investing in design capabilities? What evidence do we have of impact by design? Leading practitioners and educators, brought together in seven dynamic roundtable discussions, provide context to the case studies.

Design for Social Innovation is a must-have for professionals, organizations, and educators in design, philanthropy, social innovation, and entrepreneurship. This book marks the first attempt to define the contours of a global overview that showcases the cultural, economic, and organizational levers propelling design for social innovation forward today…(More)”

Do Awards Incentivize Non-Winners to Work Harder on CSR?

Article by Jiangyan Li, Juelin Yin, Wei Shi, And Xiwei Yi: “As corporate lists and awards that rank and recognize firms for superior social reputation have proliferated in recent years, the field of CSR is also replete with various types of awards given out to firms or CEOs, such as Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies” rankings and “Best 100 Companies to Work For” lists. Such awards serve to both reward and incentivize firms to become more dedicated to CSR. Prior research has primarily focused on the effects of awards on award-winning firms; however, the effectiveness and implications of such awards as incentives to non-winning firms remain understudied. Therefore, in the article of “Keeping up with the Joneses: Role of CSR Awards in Incentivizing Non-Winners’ CSR” published by Business & Society, we are curious about whether such CSR awards could successfully incentivize non-winning firms to catch up with their winning competitors.

Drawing on the awareness-motivation-capability (AMC) framework developed in the competitive dynamics literature, we use a sample of Chinese listed firms from 2009 to 2015 to investigate how competitors’ CSR award winning can influence focal firms’ CSR. The empirical results show that non-winning firms indeed improve their CSR after their competitors have won CSR awards. However, non-winning firms’ improvement in CSR may vary in different scenarios. For instance, media exposure can play an important informational role in reducing information asymmetries and inducing competitive actions among competitors, therefore, non-winning firms’ improvement in CSR is more salient when award-winning firms are more visible in the media. Meanwhile, when CSR award winners perform better financially, non-winners will be more motivated to respond to their competitors’ wins. Further, firms with a higher level of prior CSR are more capable of improving their CSR and therefore are more likely to respond to their competitors’ wins…(More)”.

Against longtermism

Essay by Phil Torres: “The point is that longtermism might be one of the most influential ideologies that few people outside of elite universities and Silicon Valley have ever heard about. I believe this needs to change because, as a former longtermist who published an entire book four years ago in defence of the general idea, I have come to see this worldview as quite possibly the most dangerous secular belief system in the world today. But to understand the nature of the beast, we need to first dissect it, examining its anatomical features and physiological functions….

Why do I think this ideology is so dangerous? The short answer is that elevating the fulfilment of humanity’s supposed potential above all else could nontrivially increase the probability that actual people – those alive today and in the near future – suffer extreme harms, even death. Consider that, as I noted elsewhere, the longtermist ideology inclines its adherents to take an insouciant attitude towards climate change. Why? Because even if climate change causes island nations to disappear, triggers mass migrations and kills millions of people, it probably isn’t going to compromise our longterm potential over the coming trillions of years. If one takes a cosmic view of the situation, even a climate catastrophe that cuts the human population by 75 per cent for the next two millennia will, in the grand scheme of things, be nothing more than a small blip – the equivalent of a 90-year-old man having stubbed his toe when he was two.

Bostrom’s argument is that ‘a non-existential disaster causing the breakdown of global civilisation is, from the perspective of humanity as a whole, a potentially recoverable setback.’ It might be ‘a giant massacre for man’, he adds, but so long as humanity bounces back to fulfil its potential, it will ultimately register as little more than ‘a small misstep for mankind’. Elsewhere, he writes that the worst natural disasters and devastating atrocities in history become almost imperceptible trivialities when seen from this grand perspective. Referring to the two world wars, AIDS and the Chernobyl nuclear accident, he declares that ‘tragic as such events are to the people immediately affected, in the big picture of things … even the worst of these catastrophes are mere ripples on the surface of the great sea of life.’

This way of seeing the world, of assessing the badness of AIDS and the Holocaust, implies that future disasters of the same (non-existential) scope and intensity should also be categorised as ‘mere ripples’. If they don’t pose a direct existential risk, then we ought not to worry much about them, however tragic they might be to individuals. As Bostrom wrote in 2003, ‘priority number one, two, three and four should … be to reduce existential risk.’ He reiterated this several years later in arguing that we mustn’t ‘fritter … away’ our finite resources on ‘feel-good projects of suboptimal efficacy’ such as alleviating global poverty and reducing animal suffering, since neither threatens our longterm potential, and our longterm potential is what really matters…(More)”.

The Future is not a Solution

Essay by Laura Forlano: “The future is a particular kind of speaker,” explains communication scholar James W. Carey, “who tells us where we are going before we know it ourselves.” But in discussions about the nature of the future, the future as an experience never appears. This is because “the future is always offstage and never quite makes its entrance into history; the future is a time that never arrives but is always awaited.” Perhaps this is why, in the American context, there is a widespread tendency to “discount the present for the future,” and see the “future as a solvent” for existing social problems.

Abstract discussions of the “the future” miss the mark. That is because experience changes us. Anyone that has lived through the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic would surely agree. While health experts are well aware of the ongoing global risks posed by pandemics, no one—not even an algorithm—can predict exactly when, where, and how they might come to be. And, yet, since spring 2020, there has been a global desire to understand precisely what is next, how to navigate uncertain futures as well as adapt to long-term changes. The pandemic, according to the writer Arundhati Roy, is “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

In order to understand the choices that we are facing, it is necessary to understand the ways in which technologies and futures are often linked—socially, politically, and commercially —through their promises of a better tomorrow, one just beyond our grasp. Computer scientist Paul Dourish and anthropologist Genevieve Bell refer to these as “technovisions” or the stories that technologists and technology companies tell about the role of computational technologies in the future. Technovisions portray technological progress as inevitable—becoming cultural mythologies and self-fulfilling prophecies. They explain that the “proximate future,” a future that is “indefinitely postponed” is a key feature of research and practice in the field of computing that allows technology companies to “absolve themselves of the responsibilities of the present” by assuming that “certain problems will simply disappear of their own accord—questions of usability, regulation, resistance, adoption barriers, sociotechnical backlashes, and other concerns are erased.”…(More)”

Building the Behavior Change Toolkit: Designing and Testing a Nudge and a Boost

Blog by Henrico van Roekel, Joanne Reinhard, and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen: “Changing behavior is challenging, so behavioral scientists and designers better have a large toolkit. Nudges—subtle changes to the choice environment that don’t remove options or offer a financial incentive—are perhaps the most widely used tool. But they’re not the only tool.

More recently, researchers have advocated a different type of behavioral intervention: boosting. In contrast to nudges, which aim to change behavior through changing the environment, boosts aim to empower individuals to better exert their own agency.

Underpinning each approach are different perspectives on how humans deal with bounded rationality—the idea that we don’t always behave in a way that aligns with our intentions because our decision-making is subject to biases and flaws.

A nudge approach generally assumes that bounded rationality is a constant, a fact of life. Therefore, to change behavior we best change the decision environment (the so-called choice architecture) to gently guide people into the desired direction. Boosting holds that bounded rationality is malleable and people can learn how to overcome their cognitive pitfalls. Therefore, to change behavior we must focus on the decision maker and increasing their agency.

In practice, a nudge and a boost can look quite similar, as we describe below. But their theoretical distinctions are important and useful for behavioral scientists and designers working on behavior change interventions, as each approach has pros and cons. For instance, one criticism of nudging is the paternalism part of Thaler and Sunstein’s “libertarian paternalism,” as some worry nudges remove autonomy of decision makers (though the extent to which nudges are paternalistic, and the extent to which this is solvable, are debated). Additionally, if the goal of an intervention isn’t just to change behavior but to change the cognitive process of the individual, then nudges aren’t likely to be the best tool. Boosts, in contrast, require some motivation and teachability on the part of the boostee, so there may well be contexts unfit for boosting interventions where nudges come in handy….(More)”.