: “Thanks in part to Thaler and Sunstein’s work, the power of nudges has become well-established—including on many college campuses, where students around the country are beginning the fall semester. While online education and software-driven pedagogy on college campuses have received a good deal of attention, a less visible set of technology-driven initiatives also has gained a foothold: behavioral nudges designed to keep students on track to succeed. Just as e-commerce entrepreneurs have drawn on massive troves of consumer data to create algorithms for firms such as Netflix and Amazon, which unbundle the traditional storefront consumer experience through customized, online delivery, architects of campus technology nudges also rely on data analytics or data mining to improve the student experience.
By giving students information-driven suggestions that lead to smarter actions, technology nudges are intended to tackle a range of problems surrounding the process by which students begin college and make their way to graduation.
New approaches are certainly needed….
There are many reasons for low rates of persistence and graduation, including financial problems, the difficulty of juggling non-academic responsibilities such as work and family, and, for some first-generation students, culture shock. But academic engagement and success are major contributors. That’s why colleges are using behavioral nudges, drawing on data analytics and behavioral psychology, to focus on problems that occur along the academic pipeline:
• Poor student organization around the logistics of going to college
• Unwise course selections that increase the risk of failure and extend time to degree
• Inadequate information about academic progress and the need for academic help
• Unfocused support systems that identify struggling students but don’t directly engage with them
• Difficulty tapping into counseling services
These new ventures, whether originating within colleges or created by outside entrepreneurs, are doing things with data that just couldn’t be done in the past—creating giant databases of student course records, for example, to find patterns of success and failure that result when certain kinds of students take certain kinds of courses.”
New paper by Gabriele Camera, Marco Casari and Maria Bigoni in PNAS:”What makes money essential for the functioning of modern society? Through an experiment, we present evidence for the existence of a relevant behavioral dimension in addition to the standard theoretical arguments. Subjects faced repeated opportunities to help an anonymous counterpart who changed over time. Cooperation required trusting that help given to a stranger today would be returned by a stranger in the future. Cooperation levels declined when going from small to large groups of strangers, even if monitoring and payoffs from cooperation were invariant to group size. We then introduced intrinsically worthless tokens. Tokens endogenously became money: subjects took to reward help with a token and to demand a token in exchange for help. Subjects trusted that strangers would return help for a token. Cooperation levels remained stable as the groups grew larger. In all conditions, full cooperation was possible through a social norm of decentralized enforcement, without using tokens. This turned out to be especially demanding in large groups. Lack of trust among strangers thus made money behaviorally essential. To explain these results, we developed an evolutionary model. When behavior in society is heterogeneous, cooperation collapses without tokens. In contrast, the use of tokens makes cooperation evolutionarily stable.”
Richard Thaler in the New York Times: “I HAVE written here before about the potential gains to government from involving social and behavioral scientists in designing public policies. My enthusiasm comes in part from my experiences as an academic adviser to the Behavioral Insights Team created in Britain by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Thus I was pleased to hear reports that the White House is building a similar initiative here in the United States. Maya Shankar, a cognitive scientist and senior policy adviser at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is coordinating this cross-agency group, called the Social and Behavioral Science Team; it is part of a larger effort to use evidence and innovation to promote government performance and efficiency. I am among a number of academics who have shared ideas with the administration about how research findings in social and behavioral science can improve policy.
It makes sense for social scientists to become more involved in policy, because many of society’s most challenging problems are, in essence, behavioral. Using social scientists’ findings to create plausible interventions, then testing their efficacy with randomized controlled trials, can improve — and sometimes save — people’s lives, all while reducing the need for more government spending to fix problems later.
Here are three examples of social science issues that have attracted the team’s attention…
THE 30-MILLION-WORD GAP One of society’s thorniest problems is that children from poor families start school lagging badly behind their more affluent classmates in readiness. By the age of 3, children from affluent families have vocabularies that are roughly double those of children from poor families, according to research published in 1995….
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE The team will primarily lend support and expertise to federal agency initiatives. One example concerns the effort to reduce domestic violence, a problem for which there is no quick fix….
HEALTH COMPLIANCE One reason for high health care costs is that patients fail to follow their treatment regimen….”
David Brooks in the New York Times: “We’re entering the age of what’s been called “libertarian paternalism.” Government doesn’t tell you what to do, but it gently biases the context so that you find it easier to do things you think are in your own self-interest.
Government could design forms where the default option is to donate organs or save more for retirement. Individuals would have to actively opt out to avoid doing these things. Government could tell air-conditioner makers to build in a little red light to announce when the filter needs changing. That would make homes more energy efficient, since people are too lazy to change the filters promptly otherwise. Government could crack down on companies that exploit common cognitive errors to induce you to pay more for your mortgage, bank account, credit card or car warranty. Or, most notoriously, government could make it harder for you to buy big, sugary sodas.
But this raises a philosophic question. Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes? Many people argue no…
I’d call it social paternalism. Most of us behave somewhat decently because we are surrounded by social norms and judgments that make it simpler for us to be good. To some gentle extent, government policy should embody those norms, a preference for saving over consumption, a preference for fitness over obesity, a preference for seat belts and motorcycle helmets even though some people think it’s cooler not to wear them. In some cases, there could be opt-out provisions.
These days, we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one. Some modest paternalism might be just what we need.”
Paper by Cass Sunstein: “In recent years, social scientists have been incorporating empirical findings about human behavior into economic models. These findings offer important insights for thinking about regulation and its likely consequences. They also offer some suggestions about the appropriate design of effective, low-cost, choice-preserving approaches to regulatory problems, including disclosure requirements, default rules, and simplification. A general lesson is that small, inexpensive policy initiatives can have large and highly beneficial effects. In the United States, a large number of recent practices and reforms reflect an appreciation of this lesson. They also reflect an understanding of the need to ensure that regulations have strong empirical foundations, both through careful analysis of costs and benefits in advance and through retrospective review of what works and what does not.”
William H. Simon in the Boston Review: “Cass Sunstein went to Washington with the aim of putting some theory into practice. As administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) during President Obama’s first term, he drew on the behavioral economics he helped develop as an academic. In his new book, Simpler, he reports on these efforts and elaborates a larger vision in which they exemplify “the future of government.”
…Simpler reports some notable achievements, but it exaggerates the practical value of the behaviorist toolkit. The Obama administration’s most important policy initiatives make only minor use of it. Despite its upbeat tone, the book implies an oddly constrained conception of the means and ends of government. It sometimes calls to mind a doctor putting on a cheerful face to say that, while there is little he can do to arrest the disease, he will try to make the patient as comfortable as possible.
…The obverse of Sunstein’s preoccupation with choice architecture is his relative indifference to other approaches to making administration less rigid. Recall that among the problems Sunstein sees with conventional regulation are, first, that it mandates conduct in situations where the regulator doesn’t know with confidence what is the right thing to do, and second, that it is insufficiently sensitive to relevant local variations in taste or circumstances.
The most common way to deal with the first problem—insufficient information—is to build learning into the process of intervention: the regulator intervenes provisionally, studies the effects of her intervention, and adapts as she learns. It is commonplace for statutes to mandate or fund demonstration or pilot projects. More importantly, statutes often demand that both top administrators and frontline workers reassess and adjust their practices continuously. This approach is the central and explicit thrust of Race to the Top’s “instructional improvement systems,” and it recurs prominently in all the statutes mentioned so far.”
Mark Mazower, who teaches history at Columbia University, in the Guardian: “First there was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. More recently, we had Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: for years, it seems, big ideas have been heading our way across the Atlantic. It is hard to think of many similarly catchy slogans that have gone the other way of late – Tony Giddens’ notion of “the third way” may be one.
Some people think that is a problem. They are worried that Britain has been failing to produce big ideas that policymakers can use. They want to convert academic ideas into policy relevance and shake up the bureaucrats. Phillip Blond, who recently wrote a controversial article in Chatham House’s magazine, is one of them. Francis Maude is another: he wants politicians to be able to appoint senior civil servants so that fresh thinking can enter Whitehall…
And are big ideas the kind of ideas worth having anyway? They age badly for one thing and quickly look shopworn. Moreover, it’s hard to think of many scholars whose best work has been directed explicitly towards such a goal. …The tendency in recent government policy here to demand demonstrable policy relevance or public “impact” from academics shows how far this mindset has spread. It may or may not produce some policy product. But what it will do is jeopardise British universities’ ability to do what they have done so well for so long: world-class research. These days both government and business demand value for money when they fund academia, and this makes it harder and more vital to insist that there are many ways to demonstrate the value of ideas, not just policy relevance.”
Ethan Zuckerman in Slate: “As the historian and technology scholar Langdon Winner suggests, “The arrival of any new technology that has significant power and practical potential always brings with it a wave of visionary enthusiasm that anticipates the rise of a utopian social order.” Technologies that connect individuals to one another—like the airplane, the telegraph, and the radio—appear particularly powerful at helping us imagine a smaller, more connected world. Seen through this lens, the Internet’s underlying architecture—it is no more and no less than a network that connects networks—and the sheer amount written about it in the past decade guaranteed that the network would be placed at the center of visions for a world made better through connection. These visions are so abundant that they’ve even spawned a neologism: “cyberutopianism.”
The term “cyberutopian” tends to be used only in the context of critique. Calling someone a cyberutopian implies that he or she has an unrealistic and naïvely overinflated sense of what technology makes possible and an insufficient understanding of the forces that govern societies. Curiously, the commonly used term for an opposite stance, a belief that Internet technologies are weakening society, coarsening discourse, and hastening conflict is described with a less weighted term: “cyberskepticism.” Whether or not either of these terms adequately serves us in this debate, we should consider cyberutopianism’s appeal, and its merits….
If we reject the notion that technology makes certain changes inevitable, but accept that the aspirations of the “cyberutopians” are worthy ones, we are left with a challenge: How do we rewire the tools we’ve built to maximize our impact on an interconnected world? Accepting the shortcomings of the systems we’ve built as inevitable and unchangeable is lazy. As Benjamin Disraeli observed in Vivian Grey
, “Man is not the creature of circumstances, circumstances are the creatures of men. We are free agents, and man is more powerful than matter.” And, as Rheingold suggests, believing that people can use technology to build a world that’s more just, fair, and inclusive isn’t merely defensible. It’s practically a moral imperative.
Excerpted from Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection by Ethan Zuckerman.”
Krystal D’Costa on Anthropology in Practice in Scientific American: “These types of linguistic structures are known as “politeness formulae.” … These patterns of responses are deeply nuanced and reflect the nature of the relationship between participants: degree of intimacy, relative status, and length of contact or expected duration of separation all influence how these interactions are carried out.
In the age of texting, these practices may seem antiquated, but the need for those sorts of rituals remains important, particularly in electronic communication where tone is hard to read. We end our communiques with “talk later,” “talk 2 u tomorrow,” or even simply “bye.” “Thanks” and “Thank you” have worked their way into this portion of the formula particularly in emails. More traditional valedictions have been replaced with “Thank you” so subtly that it’s now a common sign-off in this medium. But what does it mean? And why is it more acceptable than “Sincerely” or “Yours truly”?
It is in part be a reflection of our times. Email offers a speedier means of contact than an actual letter (and in some cases, a telephone), but that speed also means we’re sending more messages through this medium both for personal and professional reasons, and reading and responding to these messages requires a commitment of time. So it’s more important that the sender recognize the burden that they’ve placed on the recipient. In a time when letters took time to write, send, and respond to, it was important for the sender to attest to her reliability. Responses and actions were not so easy to take back. “Sincerely” and “Yours truly” which were meant to build trust between communicants. Credibility was an important determinant of whether a response would be issues. Today, as the web enables stranger to contact each other with little effort, credibility is less of a factor in determining responses (SPAM mail aside) when weighed against time.”
Barking Up The Wrong Tree: “Warren Bennis and Patricia Biederman studied a number of breakthrough great groups to see what made them so successful. They compiled the results into their book, Organizing Genius.
They looked at the Disney’s Animation division, the Manhattan Project (developed the nuclear bomb), Xerox PARC (designed the modern computer interface), the 1992 Clinton campaign (pulled off an enormous victory), Lockheed’s Skunk Works (created the U2 spy plane and the Stealth Bomber), and others.
Highlights from Organizing Genius summarized by Erik Barker can be found here.”