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.

Staff Profile: Elisabeth O’Toole

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What do you do at J-PAL? I provide research support for the Nurse-Family Partnership study, coordinating between the research team and providers on study implementation and analysis. I have also contributed to the facilitation of several J-PAL conferences, including for the State & Local Innovation Initiative and the Health Care Delivery Initiative. Lastly, I have been assisting editing a research resources document regarding RCT challenges.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? I rightfully anticipated that J-PAL would be a perfect fit for me to put my economics background to good use. It is incredible that the research resources created and impact evaluations conducted in our department have the potential to impact domestic and even global policy.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been? Lake Atitlan, Guatemala – I went on a zip-line tour, and despite being incredibly nervous, the views were incredible as we were flying over coffee fields and rain forests as we looked out on the lake.

If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be? I would love the chance to speak again with the departed Fr. Ted Hesburgh, CSC – a former president of my alma mater whose actions had meaningful global impact.

If you could buy one material thing, and money was not an issue, what would you buy? A Viking stove top/oven to bake delicious cookies.

Read Elisabeth’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.

Staff Profile: Ting Wang

 

Ting_Wang.JPGWhat do you do at J-PAL?   I am a research assistant for MIT professor Amy Finkelstein, working on two of her RCT projects. One project in Pennsylvania studies if the intervention helps increase the take-up rate of SNAP, also known as “food stamps”, among poor and elderly population. The other project investigates the impact of introducing decision-making technology on a provider’s decision to order potentially unnecessary radiology scans for patients.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? I audited the “Consumers, Firms and Markets in Developing Countries” class taught by professor Robert Jensen at UPenn when I was on exchange and felt inspired by how economic research can help the poor. I wanted first-hand experience doing this kind of research.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been?  I love my hometown, Beijing, very much. Besides Beijing, Kyoto in Japan.

If you had to eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be? Dumplings (Jiaozi).

Read Ting’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.

 

Staff Profile: Jamie Daw

jamie_dawWhat do you do at J-PAL? I work with policymakers and health care delivery organizations to develop randomized evaluations of innovative programs and policies. My focus is on facilitating collaborations between J-PAL affiliates and the winners of the Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition, all of which are deploying novel health and social services to improve health outcomes and enhance the accessibility and affordability of quality health care.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? J-PAL’s mission to reduce poverty across the globe and the opportunity to act as a liaison between the worlds of research and policy.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been? My former home, Vancouver B.C., will always have my heart! The juxtaposition of wild nature and a lively, cosmopolitan city is hard to beat.

If you had to eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be? The Adventurer Bowl at Life Alive in Cambridge. It tastes great and covers all the food groups!

If you had a million dollars to donate, what would you give it to? Advocacy for universal, affordable child care. I’m passionate about supporting policies that promote gender equality. Access to affordable child care is a huge piece of this puzzle!

Read Jamie’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.

Staff Profile: Hannah Myers

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What do you do at J-PAL? As a Communications Associate, I work to ensure our research reaches people who can act on it. I identify decision makers–from those who create policy to those who are affected by it—and connect them with research to inform their choices.

What drew you to want to work at J-PAL? I am inspired by J-PAL’s commitment to translate research into action. J-PAL asks tough questions and answers them meticulously, supporting those who have to make hard choices about the best way to tackle poverty.

What is your favorite place in the world that you have been? Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

If you had to eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be? Burritos.

If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be? Diana Nyad.

Read Hannah’s bio on the J-PAL North America website.

NPR Interviews Quentin Palfrey on Innovative Substance Abuse Treatment Program

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Photo credit: J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

89.3 WFPL, an NPR affiliate, recently featured the Louisville Department of Metro Corrections and J-PAL North America in a radio story. The article talks about the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections’ innovative pay-for-success initiative to provide treatment to individuals with substance abuse disorders immediately upon release from jail. J-PAL North America has partnered with the Department to design an evaluation of whether the program helps former inmates stay out of jail and lead healthier lives.

J-PAL North America’s executive director Quentin Palfrey spoke to reporter Lisa Gillespie about the program’s potential to break the cycle of poverty and lower healthcare costs. “If it turns out the program works and can keep people from returning to jail, instead of paying the larger amount of incarcerating individuals, [Louisville] will pay for the cost of substance treatment,” Palfrey said.

As a winner of J-PAL’s inaugural Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition, the Louisville Department of Metro Corrections receives technical assistance from J-PAL North America staff and $50,000 toward developing a rigorous evaluation of the program. J-PAL North America hopes that the evaluation will be relevant not only to Louisville, but to cities and states nationwide who are also striving to address this challenge. The competition is a part of J-PAL North America’s United States Health Care Delivery Initiative, which supports the use of randomized evaluations to inform health policy.

Listen to the full WFPL story and read the accompanying article here. To find more about the winners of the Health Care Delivery Innovation Competition, check out the MIT Press Release and stay updated on our blog, Facebook and Twitter.

White House releases report on applying behavioral science to government policy

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President Barack Obama speaks with Dr. John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and OSTP Social and Behavioral Sciences team, in the Oval Office, Jan. 30, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team released its second report last month, and it’s worth a close read. The SBST was launched just over two years ago, and has been working to make government more effective. This might seem like quiet, behind the scenes work, but it can make a big difference when scaled up across national programs.

I’ve had the honor of working with the SBST over the past two years and have been impressed by key elements of their approach.

They test relatively small tweaks to programs, but these can add up to real changes that improve lives. Here are a few highlights:

  • A 53 percent increase in workplace savings plan enrollment rates by military service members—more than 4,800 new enrollments—and over $1 million dollars in additional savings in just one month.
  • A doubling in the rate at which student loan borrowers in default contacted default-resolution representatives.

SBST has been exemplary in how they have made research integrity a major priority.

  • They are committed to building A/B testing and random assignment into their studies. When appropriate, this can be a very valuable tool for understanding which approaches work and why.
  • They have highlighted the studies that didn’t work, too, for example in their first report. That’s a refreshingly transparent approach for both academia and government.

They have mastered the art of tapping into external resources and collaborating across agencies.

SBST has partnered with researchers from nationally recognized universities who often provide their time pro bono while getting the chance to conduct policy-relevant studies in partnership with the government. Given the close alignment of J-PAL North America’s specialization on randomized evaluations, our network of academics has been excited to partner with them on multiple studies, and our staff have collaborated from the start on knowledge sharing and best practices in designing and running studies for maximum effect. We’d especially like to congratulate Kelly Bidwell, previously a senior policy manager with J-PAL North America, for her role as one of the initial SBST members during its launch, and her leadership in building the work of SBST.

Last year, President Obama institutionalized their work by signing an executive order to make SBST permanent and directing federal agencies to include behavioral science insights in the design of their programs. I’m hopeful that their work will continue to have an impact for years to come and set the norm for how government innovates.