This piece was co-authored by Cait Lamberton, Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, and Benjamin Castleman, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.
Nudges are all around us
Chances are that someone has nudged you today—even if you didn’t realize it. Maybe it was your doctor’s office, sending you a text message about an upcoming appointment. Or maybe it was an airline website, urging you to make a reservation because “only three tickets are left at this price.” In fact, the private sector has been nudging us in one way or another for at least 75 years, since the heyday of the Madison Avenue Ad Men.
It’s taken a few generations, but the public sector is starting to catch on. In policy domains ranging from consumer finance and public health to retirement planning and education, researchers are applying behavioral science insights to help people make more informed decisions that lead to better long-term outcomes.
Sometimes these nudges take the form of changing the rules that determine whether someone participates in a program or not (like switching the default so people are automatically enrolled in a retirement savings plan unless they opt out, rather than only enrolling people who actively sign up for the program). But oftentimes, nudges can be as simple as sending people simplified information about opportunities that are available to them, or reminders about important tasks they have to complete in order to participate in beneficial programs.
A growing body of research demonstrates that nudges like these, despite being low touch and costing very little, can lead to substantial improvements in educational outcomes, whether it’s parents reading more to their children, middle school students completing more class assignments, or college students successfully persisting in college.
Moving past the low-hanging fruit.
As impressive as these results have been, many of the early nudge studies in education have focused on fairly low-hanging fruit. We’re often helping people follow through on an intention they already have, or informing them about opportunities or resources that they didn’t know or were confused about. What’s less clear, however, is how well these strategies can support sustained behavior change, like going to school every day or avoiding substance abuse.
To use a real world metaphor, imagine yourself standing behind someone in line in the grocery store. As the line moves forward, the person in front of you is too busy to look up from their phone and pick up the slack space. If you give them a nudge towards the cashier, you don’t change their direction - you push them in a direction they would already go had they been paying attention. Your nudge motivates them to move, and once they start walking, the path to the cashier is pretty straightforward.
Nudges are powerful, in part, because they take advantage of peoples’ existing tendencies and make it easier to enact them. But nudges can also be a fairly blunt, general-purpose tool. In the case of the grocery line metaphor, it’s not clear if the first nudge will be enough, or if you’ll have to nudge them again when they’re sucked back into their game of Candy Crush.
A next generation of nudges.
But what if we want to change someone’s direction? In real-world terms, what if a student is struggling in school but isn’t even considering looking for help? What if their lives are too busy for them to search for or meet with a tutor on a consistent basis? What if they have a nagging feeling that they’re just not the kind of person who succeeds in school, so they don’t see the point in even trying?
For these types of behavior change, we need an expanded nudge toolkit—what we’ll call Nudge 2.0. These strategies go beyond information simplification, reminders, and professional assistance, and address the decision-making person more holistically- people’s identity, their psychology, their emotions, and the competing forces that vie for their attention.
Think about the Nudge 2.0 toolkit as having three separate buckets, as shown in our diagram below. First, we use the classic behavioral economics tools that reduce the cognitive bandwidth people need to apply to a decision and that help people follow through on their own intentions. Messages should be simple, defaults should be carefully chosen, reminders should be sent to help people follow-through, and when possible, help should be offered. The power of these tools has been widely demonstrated, at scale and in important domains.
Second, we can consider tools that marketing and advertising have used to capture attention in a crowded electronic environment. These strategies focus on the visual design of messages (whether postal mail, email, or text) to maximize the probability a message creates action. Marketing strategies also provide insight into how we can communicate about goals and goal progress in a way that prompts completion rather than abandonment. Personalized content, novel messages, and visually-appealing infographics may be important tools for policy makers and educators to include in their nudges if we want to make sure that our prompt is even processed.
Third, we draw tools from the world of social psychology to address the complex social identity and motivational factors that can affect students. Do underrepresented students feel like they belong in academically-rigorous or culturally-unfamiliar environments? Do they have the kind of mind-set that facilitates growth, even in the face of challenges? Could students’ beliefs about their own ability to pursue goals be undermining their performance? In this bucket, we apply nudge strategies that directly address peoples’ beliefs about and relationships with those around them. For example, we can frame a certain behavior as a norm (e.g. “everyone else is voting, so you should too!”), or we can link a particular action or behavior with giving to someone else - recognizing that the opportunity to spend time or money on others can be a powerful motivator.
With our colleagues Kelli Bird and Josh Goodman and in partnership with The Common Application, we recently used the Nudge 2.0 toolbox to encourage almost 450,000 lower-income high school seniors across the country to apply for financial aid early in the calendar year, in order to maximize how much grant aid they receive for college.
This has been a great testing ground for Nudge 2.0. Approximately 1.4 million high school students failed to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in 2014, leaving an estimated $2.7 B in financial aid on the table. A whole host of barriers—informational, motivational, and identity-based—likely contribute to students failing to file the FAFSA at all, or before priority deadlines. We designed messages that first, offered customized reminders about salient FAFSA deadlines and links to FAFSA completion assistance, drawing from the cognitive ease toolbox. Drawing from the attentional capture bucket, we worked with ideas42 to make message content visually attractive by including infographics and bright colors, and eye-catching icons. We delivered messages via email, text message and postal mail, for a triple-punch of exposure that should raise the likelihood of attention. Finally, we included content that activated positive identities, by emphasizing that the work students had already put into applying for college was a good signal that they were the type of motivated individual who would take the next step toward making college affordable by applying for financial aid.
Within the realm of education, FAFSA completion is one of only many persistent challenges where we need creative, sustainable, scalable solutions: How do we encourage parents to consider high-quality early learning environments for their children? How can we motivate potentially at-risk teenagers to go to school everyday and stay on top of their assignments? How can we encourage students who have accumulated substantial college credits but subsequently dropped out to consider finishing their degree? The Nudge 2.0 toolkit can help us make meaningful progress on these and other important educational margins.