Behavioral Economics Meets the Social Sector

Social TrendSpotter
4 min readJan 11, 2024

Do you know why offices and hotels have mirrors in their elevators? One reason is because people will focus on fixing stray hairs and smoothing out wrinkled clothing rather than how long the elevator is taking and, as a result, be happier. This strange but true fact is one of many examples of behavioral economics — all designed to influence our choices.

In business school, I was a teaching assistant for one of my favorite professors, John Lynch. He mentioned that a former student of his, Dan Ariely, was returning to Duke to teach behavioral economics and suggested I take the class. I confess that my first reaction as a second-year MBA student was not very positive: “Economics — I think I have had enough of that type of course!” He then explained that behavioral economics was a new discipline that was turning traditional economics, which assumes humans make rational decisions, upside down. Behavioral economists believe that human decision-making is often imperfect and imprecise. By our very nature, humans are imperfect — we procrastinate, stray off our diets, get overwhelmed and can be shaped by our experience. For example, one study of Asian-American women showed that when they were primed to think about their gender before taking a math test, they performed below average, but when they were primed to think about their race, they performed above average. What explains this change? Our expectations change the way we experience situations and can lead to different results. In the end, I did take Dan Ariely’s class and loved it so much that I became his research assistant. He has gone on to become a celebrity author of seven books on the subject and has been featured in The New York Times and Scientific American.

Now, as I work with clients and speak about social change, I use behavioral economics examples whenever possible. I was recently excited to learn that MDRC (one of my favorite social sector research organizations) used behavioral economics in work with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to increase the number of clients who renew their child care subsidy. This subsidy is crucial for many working parents to afford quality child care. Unfortunately, only 1/3 of an estimated 39,000 child care subsidy cases eligible for renewal each year in Oklahoma are renewed by the deadline. This is important because non-renewal leads to serious consequences and costs — children may lose their place in their child care center and parents then have to apply again. This costs the system time and effort, which in turn delays parents in getting their child back into child care, which ultimately could lead to job loss. You may ask yourself — why don’t they just renew? Well, this cuts to the heart of behavioral economics. How often do many of us work against what is in our best interest? How can we engineer a system that makes it easier to make the right decisions? Or, as psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggests — how do you “achieve medium-sized gains by nano-sized investments?” These were the questions that MDRC worked on in their project in Oklahoma.

Their full report, which is an excellent read, is available online. They tried three interventions with a randomized control group:

  • A provider intervention where the child care provider was reminded when the client didn’t take action (cost = $1.10/child)
  • A client intervention where the state sent clearer communications to the client to encourage renewal (cost=$1.00/child)
  • A combination of provider intervention and client intervention

The findings showed that the provider intervention alone was most effective at helping clients renew on time. Debi Ream, former Deputy Director for Programs, Adult and Family Services, was encouraged by the results and planned to use them. “Although the costs of the provider intervention are not negligible, the possibility of thousands of more on-time renewals and the potential for increased good … justifies us exploring ways to institutionalize the provider intervention.” If you like this study, check out MDRC’s resource page for more studies using behavioral science.

And, it makes sense — what would you be more likely to respond to? Someone you know reminding you to renew or a random piece of mail? In the past 15 years, behavioral economics has gone mainstream and is being tested across all sectors — education (teacher pay), social services (peer support) and health (organ donation, medication compliance). We need to be asking ourselves these questions: if what we are doing is not working, how can we get better results? Are we making assumptions about the people we serve? We love to ask these thought-provoking questions to positively impact our clients and their donors and employees — in fact, my team and students joke that behavioral economics questions are my “Jedi mind tricks!”

If you have used these techniques in your organizations, we would love to hear about them!

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