To solve big issues like climate change, we need to reframe our problems

Essay by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg and Jonathan Wichmann: “Imagine you own an office building and your tenants are complaining that the elevator is way too slow. What do you do?

Faced with this problem, most people instinctively jump into solution mode. How can we make the elevator faster? Can we upgrade the motor? Tweak the algorithm? Do we need to buy a new elevator?

The speed of the elevator might be the wrong problem to focus on, however. Talk to an experienced landlord and they might offer you a more elegant solution: put up mirrors next to the elevator so people don’t notice the wait. Gazing lovingly at your own reflection tends to have that effect.

The mirror doesn’t make the elevator faster. It solves a different problem – that the wait is annoying.

Solve the right problem

The slow elevator story highlights an important truth, in that the way we frame a problem often determines which solutions we come up with. By shifting the way we see a problem, we can sometimes find better solutions.

Problem framing is of paramount importance when it comes to tackling the many hard challenges our societies face. And yet, we’re not terribly good at it. In a survey of 106 corporate leaders, 87% said their people waste significant resources solving the wrong problems. When we go to the doctor, we know very well that identifying the right problem is key. Too often, we fail to apply the same thinking to social and global problems.

Three common patterns

So, how do we get better at it? One starting point is to recognise that there are often patterns in the way we frame problems. Get better at recognising those patterns, and you can dramatically improve your ability to solve the right problems. Here are three typical patterns:

1. We prefer framings that allow us to avoid change

People tend to frame problems so they don’t have to change their own behaviour. When the lack of women leading companies first became a prominent concern decades ago, it was often framed as a pipeline problem. Many corporate leaders simply assumed that, once there were enough women in junior positions, the C-suite would follow.

That framing allowed companies to carry on as usual for about a generation until time eventually proved the pipeline theory wrong, or at best radically incomplete. The gender balance among senior executives would surely be better by now if companies had not spent a few decades ignoring other explanations for the skewed ratio….(More)”.

Human behaviour: what scientists have learned about it from the pandemic

Stephen Reicher at The Conversation: “During the pandemic, a lot of assumptions were made about how people behave. Many of those assumptions were wrong, and they led to disastrous policies.

Several governments worried that their pandemic restrictions would quickly lead to “behavioural fatigue” so that people would stop adhering to restrictions. In the UK, the prime minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings recently admitted that this was the reason for not locking down the country sooner.

Meanwhile, former health secretary Matt Hancock revealed that the government’s failure to provide financial and other forms of support for people to self-isolate was down to their fear that the system “might be gamed”. He warned that people who tested positive may then falsely claim that they had been in contact with all their friends, so they could all get a payment.

These examples show just how deeply some governments distrust their citizens. As if the virus was not enough, the public was portrayed as an additional part of the problem. But is this an accurate view of human behaviour?

The distrust is based on two forms of reductionism – describing something complex in terms of its fundamental constituents. The first is limiting psychology to the characteristics – and more specifically the limitations – of individual minds. In this view the human psyche is inherently flawed, beset by biases that distort information. It is seen as incapable of dealing with complexity, probability and uncertainty – and tending to panic in a crisis.

This view is attractive to those in power. By emphasising the inability of people to govern themselves, it justifies the need for a government to look after them. Many governments subscribe to this view, having established so-called nudge units – behavioural science teams tasked with subtly manipulating people to make the “right” decisions, without them realising why, from eating less sugar to filing their taxes on time. But it is becoming increasingly clear that this approach is limited. As the pandemic has shown, it is particularly flawed when it comes to behaviour in a crisis.

In recent years, research has shown that the notion of people panicking in a crisis is something of a myth. People generally respond to crises in a measured and orderly way – they look after each other.

The key factor behind this behaviour is the emergence of a sense of shared identity. This extension of the self to include others helps us care for those around us and expect support from them. Resilience cannot be reduced to the qualities of individual people. It tends to be something that emerges in groups.

Another type of reductionism that governments adopt is “psychologism” – when you reduce the explanation of people’s behaviour to just psychology…(More)”.

The State of Global Emotions

Gallup: “Nobody was alone in feeling more sad, angry, worried or stressed last year. Gallup’s latest Negative Experience Index, which annually tracks these experiences worldwide in more than 100 countries and areas, shows that collectively, the world was feeling the worst it had in 15 years. The index score reached a new high of 32 in 2020.

Line graph. The Negative Experience Index, an annual composite index of stress, anger, worry, sadness and physical pain, continued to rise in 2020, hitting a new record of 32.

Gallup asked adults in 115 countries and areas if they had five specific negative experiences on the day preceding the survey. Four in 10 adults said they had experienced worry (40%) or stress (40%), and just under three in 10 had experienced physical pain (29%) during a lot of the previous day. About one in four or more experienced sadness (27%) or anger (24%).

Already at or near record highs in 2019, experiences of worry, stress, sadness and anger continued to gain steam and set new records in 2020. Worry and sadness each rose one percentage point, anger rose two, and stress rocketed up five. The percentage of adults worldwide who experienced pain was the only index item that declined — dropping two points after holding steady for several years at 31%.

But 2020 officially became the most stressful year in recent history. The five-point jump from 35% in 2019 to 40% in 2020 represents nearly 190 million more people globally who experienced stress during a lot of the previous day.

Line graph. Reported stress worldwide soared to a record 40% in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Worldwide, not everyone was feeling this stress to the same degree. Reported stress ranged from a high of 66% in Peru — which represents a new high for the country — to a low of 13% in Kyrgyzstan, where stress levels have historically been low and stayed low in 2020….(More)”

Fighting Climate Change: The Role of Norms, Preferences, and Moral Values

Paper by Armin Falk: “We document individual willingness to fight climate change and its behavioral determinants in a large representative sample of US adults. Willingness to fight climate change – as measured through an incentivized donation decision – is highly heterogeneous across the population. Individual beliefs about social norms, economic preferences such as patience and altruism, as well as universal moral values positively predict climate preferences. Moreover, we document systematic misperceptions of prevalent social norms. Respondents vastly underestimate the prevalence of climate- friendly behaviors and norms among their fellow citizens. Providing respondents with correct information causally raises individual willingness to fight climate change as well as individual support for climate policies. The effects are strongest for individuals who are skeptical about the existence and threat of global warming…(More)”.

Repository of Behavioral Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean

Inter-American Development Bank (IDB): “How do you keep people from gathering with friends and family during a pandemic? How do you improve school attendance among preschoolers? How do you make sure taxpayers pay their fair share? These are some of the questions researchers seek to solve so countries can continue to grow and prosper. Many issues come down to human behavior and how the right policy tools can nudge people into doing things that will benefit themselves and society. A new repository collects these tools and the lessons learned from behavioral interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, making them available for policymakers across the region and beyond.

For nearly a decade, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been working with local and national governments in the region to advance knowledge and expertise on individual and collective decision-making. The goal is to address biases that guide people’s behavior in detrimental ways. By designing strategies to correct them, we can help people make wiser choices in areas that range from education and savings to health, tax compliance, and labor markets….

To collect our findings and make the lessons we learned over the years available to policymakers and researchers, we recently created the largest online repository of quantitative behavioral economics field experiments conducted in Latin America and the Caribbean. The repository is aimed specifically at policymakers and is available in Spanish and English….(More)”.

How laws affect the perception of norms: empirical evidence from the lockdown

Paper by Roberto Galbiati, Emeric Henry, Nicolas Jacquemet, and Max Lobeck: “Laws not only affect behavior due to changes in material payoffs, but they may also change the perception individuals have of societal norms, either by shifting them directly or by providing information on these norms. Using detailed daily survey data and exploiting the introduction of lockdown measures in the UK in the context of the COVID-19 health crisis, we provide causal evidence that the law drastically changed the perception of the norms regarding social distancing behaviors. We show this effect of laws on perceived norms is mostly driven by an informational channel….(More)”.

Manipulation As Theft

Paper by Cass Sunstein: “Should there be a right not to be manipulated? What kind of right? On Kantian grounds, manipulation, lies, and paternalistic coercion are moral wrongs, and for similar reasons; they deprive people of agency, insult their dignity, and fail to respect personal autonomy. On welfarist grounds, manipulation, lies, and paternalistic coercion share a different characteristic; they displace the choices of those whose lives are directly at stake, and who are likely to have epistemic advantages, with the choices of outsiders, who are likely to lack critical information. Kantians and welfarists should be prepared to endorse a (moral) right not to be manipulated, though on very different grounds.

The moral prohibition on manipulation, like the moral prohibition on lies, should run against officials and regulators, not only against private institutions. At the same time, the creation of a legal right not to be manipulated raises hard questions, in part because of definitional challenges; there is a serious risk of vagueness and a serious risk of overbreadth. (Lies, as such, are not against the law, and the same is true of unkindness, inconsiderateness, and even cruelty.) With welfarist considerations in mind, it is probably best to start by prohibiting particular practices, while emphasizing that they are forms of manipulation and may not count as fraud. The basic goal should be to build on the claim that in certain cases, manipulation is a form of theft; the law should forbid theft, whether it occurs through force, lies, or manipulation. Some manipulators are thieves….(More)”

Politics, Public Goods, and Corporate Nudging in the HTTP/2 Standardization Process

Paper by Sylvia E. Peacock: “The goal is to map out some policy problems attached to using a club good approach instead of a public good approach to manage our internet protocols, specifically the HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). Behavioral and information economics theory are used to evaluate the standardization process of our current generation HTTP/2 (2.0). The HTTP update under scrutiny is a recently released HTTP/2 version based on Google’s SPDY, which introduces several company-specific and best practice applications, side by side. A content analysis of email discussions extracted from a publicly accessible IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) email server shows how the club good approach of the working group leads to an underperformance in the outcomes of the standardization process. An important conclusion is that in some areas of the IETF, standardization activities may need to include public consultations, crowdsourced volunteers, or an official call for public participation to increase public oversight and more democratically manage our intangible public goods….(More)”.

Examining the Intersection of Behavioral Science and Advocacy

Introduction to Special Collection of the Behavioral Scientist by Cintia Hinojosa and Evan Nesterak: “Over the past year, everyone’s lives have been touched by issues that intersect science and advocacy—the pandemic, climate change, police violence, voting, protests, the list goes on. 

These issues compel us, as a society and individuals, toward understanding. We collect new data, design experiments, test our theories. They also inspire us to examine our personal beliefs and values, our roles and responsibilities as individuals within society. 

Perhaps no one feels these forces more than social and behavioral scientists. As members of fields dedicated to the study of social and behavioral phenomena, they are in the unique position of understanding these issues from a scientific perspective, while also navigating their inevitable personal impact. This dynamic brings up questions about the role of scientists in a changing world. To what extent should they engage in advocacy or activism on social and political issues? Should they be impartial investigators, active advocates, something in between? 

t also raises other questions, like does taking a public stance on an issue affect scientific integrity? How should scientists interact with those setting policies? What happens when the lines between an evidence-based stance and a political position become blurred? What should scientists do when science itself becomes a partisan issue? 

To learn more about how social and behavioral scientists are navigating this terrain, we put out a call inviting them to share their ideas, observations, personal reflections, and the questions they’re grappling with. We gave them 100-250 words to share what was on their mind. Not easy for such a complex and consequential topic.

The responses, collected and curated below, revealed a number of themes, which we’ve organized into two parts….(More)”.

Are Repeat Nudges Effective? For Tardy Tax Filers, It Seems So

Paper by Nicole Robitaille, Nina Mažar, and Julian House: “While behavioral scientists sometimes aim to nudge one-time actions, such as registering as an organ donor or signing up for a 401K, there are many other behaviors—making healthy food choices, paying bills, filing taxes, getting a flu shot—that are repeated on a daily, monthly, or annual basis. If you want to target these recurrent behaviors, can introducing a nudge once lead to consistent changes in behavior? What if you presented the same nudge several times—would seeing it over and over make its effects stronger, or just the opposite?

Decades of research from behavioral science has taught us a lot about nudges, but the field as a whole still doesn’t have a great understanding of the temporal dimensions of most interventions, including how long nudge effects last and whether or not they remain effective when repeated.

If you want an intervention to lead to lasting behavior change, prior research argues that it should target people’s beliefs, habits or the future costs of engaging in the behavior. Many nudges, however, focus instead on manipulating relatively small factors in the immediate choice environment to influence behavior, such as changing the order in which options are presented. In addition, relatively few field experiments have been able to administer and measure an intervention’s effects more than once, making it hard to know how long the effects of nudges are likely to persist.

While there is some research on what to expect when repeating nudges, the results are mixed. On the one hand, there is an extensive body of research in psychology on habituation, finding that, over time, people show decreased responses to the same stimuli. It wouldn’t be a giant leap to presume that seeing the same nudge again might decrease how much attention we pay to it, and thus hinder its ability to change our behavior. On the other hand, being exposed to the same nudge multiple times might help strengthen desired associations. Research on the mere exposure effect, for example, illustrates how the more times we see something, the more easily it is processed and the more we like it. It is also possible that being nudged multiple times could help foster enduring change, such as through new habit formation. Behavioral nudges aren’t going away, and their use will likely grow among policymakers and practitioners. It is critical to understand the temporal dimensions of these interventions, including how long one-off effects will last and if they will continue to be effective when seen multiple times….(More)”