View Full Version : human motivations - social science learning

08-17-2010, 08:34 AM
This article http://www.city-journal.org/2010/20_3_social-science.html (http://www.city-journal.org/2010/20_3_social-science.html) showed up in a link from the CBC website, where it was summarized in plainer language (http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2010/08/16/f-vp-handler.html). The conclusions are really important for social policy – what works to motivate groups, what doesn’t work, and how do we know?

The author runs a statistical number-crunching company doing marketing and product design – and builds his conclusions from looking at the ways that major companies like Google, Capital One, and E-Bay have constructed themselves to make business decisions by using massive amounts of data of the actual choices and behaviour of people, tweaking their marketing and product offerings when the data showed a minor advantage to doing so. These guys became profitable because they very consciously ran their enterprises like large-scale social science experiments. Capital One went from an idea to a $35B enterprise in 9 years this way.

Considering that my business – helping plan, develop and run a sustainable health system – depends on individuals changing their behaviour (reducing acute illness and managing chronic illness) – it has a lot to say to folks in my shop, I think. Not all of it good. The emphasis added in the quote is mine.

But what do we know from the social-science experiments that we have already conducted? After reviewing experiments not just in criminology but also in welfare-program design, education, and other fields, I propose that three lessons emerge consistently from them.

First, few programs can be shown to work in properly randomized and replicated trials. Despite complex and impressive-sounding empirical arguments by advocates and analysts, we should be very skeptical of claims for the effectiveness of new, counterintuitive programs and policies, and we should be reluctant to trump the trial-and-error process of social evolution in matters of economics or social policy.

Second, within this universe of programs that are far more likely to fail than succeed, programs that try to change people are even more likely to fail than those that try to change incentives. A litany of program ideas designed to push welfare recipients into the workforce failed when tested in those randomized experiments of the welfare-reform era; only adding mandatory work requirements succeeded in moving people from welfare to work in a humane fashion. And mandatory work-requirement programs that emphasize just getting a job are far more effective than those that emphasize skills-building. Similarly, the list of failed attempts to change people to make them less likely to commit crimes is almost endless—prisoner counseling, transitional aid to prisoners, intensive probation, juvenile boot camps—but the only program concept that tentatively demonstrated reductions in crime rates in replicated RFTs was nuisance abatement, which changes the environment in which criminals operate. (This isn’t to say that direct behavior-improvement programs can never work; one well-known program that sends nurses to visit new or expectant mothers seems to have succeeded in improving various social outcomes in replicated independent RFTs.)

And third, there is no magic. Those rare programs that do work usually lead to improvements that are quite modest, compared with the size of the problems they are meant to address or the dreams of advocates.

Paul Pless
08-17-2010, 08:41 AM
programs that try to change people are even more likely to fail than those that try to change incentivesTaught in EC201 - Intro to MicroEconomic Theory.

08-17-2010, 08:52 AM
Taught in EC201 - Intro to MicroEconomic Theory.Fair enough - but it's a very long ways from being a basic premise in pretty much any area of social policy.

In medicine, for instance, people are hung up on "evidence based" practice. Which is great - but is usually understood to mean evidence of what therapy helps people get better, under what conditions. Not evidence of what helps people monitor and manage behaviours which will prevent illness or keep chronic conditions under control.

Same's true re education, welfare ... hell, even foreign policy.

We're very much hung up on Plato's old misunderstanding: to know the good is to do the good. It isn't.

Flying Orca
08-17-2010, 09:03 AM
VERY interesting - I've passed the link along to a couple of people who would appreciate it. Thanks, Tom!

08-17-2010, 09:11 AM
On the subject of changing the environment........

Not about criminality, but I did read of an interesting experiment in a Dutch town where there was a high rate of accidents at intersections.

They simply switched off the traffic lights. Out of sheer self defence, all the drivers had to approach and negotiate the intersections with the greatest vigilence and care. Accident rates dropped sharply.

Can't find the reference, sadly, but I have always admired Dutch good sense, pragmatism and lateral thinking. They also tend to be fine sailors in handsome, well found boats, although I have encountered one or two exceptions :)

08-17-2010, 09:27 AM
What this does is push us to think more clearly about the outcomes we want to achieve, rather than simply the processes we think might get us there. And be very clear that those outcomes are the ones we want to achieve, and not just processes in disguise.

For instance, let's say that you've got an initiative designed to get better "compliance" in patients taking their meds as directed. Often the "outcome" is simply implementing the program, getting everybody in the care team on board and working in a particular way to get patients to take their meds appropriately. That's often confused for the outcome, but it's a process measure. Same with patients actually taking their meds appropriately, as a result of all the program bumph. If you've got, say, a 25% improvement in taking meds as directed, is that an outcome? I think it's still a process, disguised as an outcome.

What you really want, is an improvement in the long-term management of the conditions - a population health measure. All the other things are simply means towards that end - and far too often are mistaken as the ends themselves. A successfully implemented initiative may in fact demonstrate over time that the initiative itself is ineffective ... something you wouldn't know without successfully implementing it. That needs to be seen as a valuable data point, but not a final word.

08-17-2010, 02:42 PM
The study seems to have some very serious implications for any number of "progressive" social policies defended so adamantly here by some.

There's some delicious irony behind the concept of "nuisance abatement" which reduces crime by making criminals of those who rent property where criminals do crime.

Any discussion of the inevitable unintended consequences that invariably follow failed programs?No such discussion in the article.

I'm mixed about the article's findings, Milo, and wonder when the snapshots were taken for data points.

For instance, if a welfare program doesn't include job training, but simply includes a "get a job" incentive ... I see how it may be more effective in getting the person off their butt and into the workforce. Does the same person at a later point perhaps need a second incentive ... to get a better job ... and stay in the workforce for the long term? That later incentive might easily be some supports to job training etc. ... which would have been ineffective if offered earlier.

That is, it may be that if we're interested in long-term changes to chronic unemployment, different incentives might be effective at different points in the client's worklife, to achieve that goal. Re-stocking shelves at a grocery store or WalMart gets old fast enough that with no options for advancement ... I could see someone dropping back out of the workforce.

But yeah - this article raises a whole number of questions about typical social policy assumptions that many of us hold - me included. S'why I posted it.

08-17-2010, 02:50 PM
The hard part at the beginning of either of those enterprises, is obtaining a consensus on what yardstick to use to describe "value."

Y Bar Ranch
08-17-2010, 10:31 PM
Not about criminality, but I did read of an interesting experiment in a Dutch town where there was a high rate of accidents at intersections.

They simply switched off the traffic lights. Out of sheer self defence, all the drivers had to approach and negotiate the intersections with the greatest vigilence and care. Accident rates dropped sharply.
Cool. In the book Nudge, they reference a study where they removed the dividing line between lanes in order to slow people down on a two lane highway.

Nudge is a great book about how to gently steer groups to make decisions that are in the group's best interest. Exactly down TomF's lane of thinking. Worth picking up for the list of references alone.


08-18-2010, 11:03 AM
I have a Master's in Educational Evaluation and Research. I got the degree in the early 70's and even back then "we" knew what many of the best practices were for educating youngsters. Is it possible to get teacher's who weren't trained to use and aren't mentally flexible enough to use a selection from the smorgasbord of best practices? Not enough to make the difference that is needed to turn around our failing school systems. We've added to the list of research validated best practices since then, are they being used either?I can't talk too much about K-12 school systems, except from a parent's vantage point.

It is indeed possible to get teachers who weren't trained to use or aren't mentally flexible enough to use some of the best practices. Or motivated enough, maybe. Among our three kids' teachers over the years, we've met some who've "excelled" in both directions. The great majority were indeed trying to teach as they'd been taught to do ... and were open to incorporating some best practices into how they did their jobs, though not to re-visioning their jobs entirely. But some were into command/control, ridicule or punishment as a motivator, and their classes struggled. Power is a dangerous thing.

When "best practices" conflict with conventional wisdom, or ideology, usually the latter wins. We've seen this recently in a couple of stellar examples in Canadian politics - a decision to replace a mandatory census with a voluntary one, and a decision to build many more prisons despite a declining crime rate.

In both these cases, the science (or best practice) is on the opposite side to the policy being proposed. But the policy being proposed concurs with a particular group's take on conventional wisdom, and reality must not be made to intrude.

08-18-2010, 11:41 PM
On the other hand.

Possibly NSFW, if you're an idiot. (http://adsoftheworld.com/media/online/wppl_magic_boobs)

Conventional approaches are sometimes not the most effective.