High-stakes Nudges: Providing social information can affect what job you choose and keep

A single sentence at the end of an email can affect whether or not someone accepts a job—and stays at it for years to come. Lucas Coffman (Harvard), Clayton Featherstone (University of Pennsylvania), and J-PAL affiliate Judd Kessler (University of Pennsylvania) found that providing social information—in this case, the job acceptance rate of the previous year’s admitted applicants—increased the likelihood that an individual would accept a teaching job with Teach for America. Those told about the previous year’s matriculation rate were not only more likely to accept the job, but also to complete training, start the job, and return for a second year. Based on this study’s results, Teach for America has started including a line about their historical matriculation rate in all admissions letters.

Teach for America, a non-profit organization that recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach in under-resourced public schools, sends thousands of offer letters via email to job applicants each year. To test how the provision of social information would influence an applicant’s likelihood to accept a job, the researchers added one line to the end of randomly selected job offer letters: “Last year, more than 84 percent of admitted applicants made the decision to join the corps, and I sincerely hope you join them.”

Admitted applicants who received offer letters with this sentence were 1.8 percentage points more likely to accept the position. In other words, including this information persuaded 8.4 percent of admitted applicants who would not have joined Teach for America to do so. Furthermore, the researchers found that providing social information increased matriculation by 3 to 5 percentage points among three subgroups of individuals who were likely to be “on the fence” about joining Teach for America. This means that providing social information persuaded 12 to 14 percent of “on-the-fence” admits who would not have joined Teach for America to do so. In addition, teachers who received this information also returned for their second year of teaching at higher rates, which suggests that the social information did not convince those who were likely to drop out at a later point to join the teaching program. 

Why might one simple sentence convince individuals to change their decisions? According to the researchers, information on their peers’ choices may influence admitted applicants’ opinion of the value of the Teach for America experience. For example, the high acceptance rate may signal that the program is particularly effective at improving student outcomes, or that it looks especially good on resumes.

While social information has been found to influence low-stakes decisions (e.g. donating to charity or taking an environmentally friendly action), Coffman, Featherstone, and Kessler show for the first time that social information—such as information about the previous decisions of others—can affect high-stakes behavior and do so persistently. As policymakers seek out cheap, subtle interventions to shape behavior, this study shows that providing social information can be a potentially powerful option.

Read the full paper published in the American Economic Journal here.

Author: J-PAL North America

J-PAL North America seeks to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. We do this through research, outreach, and training. We collaborate with decision-makers to generate clear, scientific evidence on which approaches work and why. We catalyze and support randomized evaluations, communicate evidence to help translate research into action, and build policymakers’ capacity to create and use evidence.

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