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Ideas and results from Harvard, part III

28th Nov 2012

In this post, we share our discussions from Harvard listed under the third part of our simple mnemonic, EAST (Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely).

S is for SOCIAL

Informing voters about the voting behaviour of their neighbours. Telling people “Mrs Brown and Mr Smith both voted last time and you didn’t?” can significantly boost turnout. This is one of a large number of RCTs conducted by Todd Rogers (KSG). Todd also has had a go at answering one of our most frequently asked questions: do the effects persist? He has found that such interventions boost turnout not only at the immediate election, but the one following too (he similarly cites evidence that feedback on energy use also has persistent effects, even when it ceases). He uses the metaphor of the rip-tide: if someone swims out just a little bit, they may suddenly find themselves picked by the rip-tide; similarly, sometimes a seemingly small behavioural change can often lead to someone being exposed to new influences that maintain the behaviour, such as once voters register and vote once, campaigners will then prompt them in future.

Giving time makes you feel like you have more of it. Mike Norton (HBS) continues to generate fascinating work on how encouraging people to give to and help others boosts their well-being, creates a sense of having more time, and increases productivity. His book, with Liz Dunn, will be out early next year expanding their earlier work, with Dan Gilbert (‘If money doesn’t make you happy, you’re not spending it right’). He is also working on the idea of ‘ask for help day’ (with Todd Rogers)

Birth control in Zambia. Nava Ashraf (HBS) found that by far the most effective way of getting barbers and hairdressers in Zambia to distribute condoms was to give them feedback about how well they were doing relative to others. This feedback far outperformed both small and large financial incentives per condom sold.

Follow the leader. In experiments where people could choose whether to have their work checked or not, reducing their ability to cheat, Francesca Gino (HBS) found subjects choices were strongly affected by that of the first person to choose. In groups where the first of six people chose to not to have their answers checked, 80% chose not to have it checked. Where the first person voluntarily chose checking, only 30% opted out.

Social groups build valuable brands. New work from MIT shows how special interest groups, such as hikers in Germany, are increasingly creating ‘brands’ of great financial value (eg club branded rucksacks and tents). Eric Van Hippel shows these are valued highly not only by the group, but by non-group members who value the expertise and authenticity of the brand. This brand value building overlays, and may amplify, an often neglected fundamental of economic growth – that most innovations are developed by users, not firms.

Welfare and tax knowledge spreads in social networks. Using big data, Raj Chetty, who has constructed a 7 billion line data set using US tax and other data (after 2 ½ years of negotiation), has shown how certain communities and social networks become expert in how to game the tax benefit system. People who come to such areas rapidly adjust their declared earnings to maximise benefits, while those who leave carry on making such claims, even if it is rare in the new area.

In the next post, we’ll come to the fourth and final word in the mnemonic: Timely.