6 Takeaways from BSPA 2018

By Sara Dadkhah

The Behavioral Science and Policy Association (BSPA) annual conference is in the books and it did not disappoint. The conference brings together some of the brightest minds in the behavioral sciences, public policy circles, and business and nonprofit sectors to apply research to real world challenges. Here are some of our favorite takeaways from the day:

1. Boards now have women, but only enough to meet the quota.

A disproportionate number of boards have exactly two women on them — a phenomenon researchers dubbed as “twokenism.” Researchers analyzed 1,441 corporate boards from the S&P 1500 and S&P 500. There were 45% more boards with two women than you would expect from chance distributions. Edward Chang and colleagues theorize that “impression management” is pushing companies to increase diversity but only enough to keep pace with their peer companies. This strategy makes it more difficult for women and minorities to join leadership once boards already possess the token number, further perpetuating underrepresentation. Combine this with the fact that fewer large companies are run by women than by men named John, and there’s still a ways to go until the glass ceiling is dislodged.

2. Having an Asian or Black-sounding name will get you worse customer service.

Researchers Alexandra Feldberg and Tami Kim emailed nearly 6,000 hotels asking for restaurant recommendations under fake names that signaled race (e.g., Meredith Anderson, Latoya Washington, Mei Chen). The White names elicited the most responses, followed by Black and then Asian names. Most striking, however, was the disparity in content and quality within those responses. On average, White names received more restaurant recommendations, longer emails, and were more often asked about their individual preferences. The fact that minorities receive unequal treatment in customer service is nothing new. A prior study showed that Black passengers have to wait longer and are canceled on more often by rideshare drivers. Other examples abound, including discrimination on Airbnb and the arrest of two Black men who used a Starbucks bathroom.

While racial bias training is a step in the right direction, we are more interested in both government and companies taking specific steps to counteract these biases — blind job applications processes, apps that are designed force blind acceptances of riders (Uber) or encourage blind acceptances of guests (Airbnb). What other good examples have you seen?

3. You can be just “semi-bold” and stand up for what’s right.

To do right despite our unconscious biases, Dolly Chugh encourages us to be “good-ish” and adopt a mindset of continuous moral growth. We also have more tools at our disposal than we may realize. One such tool is our “ordinary privilege” — the parts of our identity that we take for granted, such as race for a white person, gender for a man, and sexual orientation for a straight person. Our ordinary privilege can bring spots, but it’s also a position of power where we may effectively influence change. Perhaps part of the solution to the customer service racism epidemic will rely on leveraging the ordinary privilege of other customers and service colleagues.

4. Letters to parents are an easy way to trim truancy.

School absenteeism predicts academic performance, graduation rates, and even drug use and criminality. What’s more, kids living in lower income, urban districts tend to miss more school than peers in other communities. To tackle truancy, Todd Rogers and Avi Feller ran a study on absenteeism, sending parents letters that tallied their kids’ absences. Just this simple intervention resulted in a 10% reduction in the number of kids who were chronically absent compared to controls. Parents also habitually underestimate their child’s absences, believing they miss half as many days as they actually do. But the letter intervention quickly curbed this misbelief.

As an added bonus, there were spillover effects — reduced absences of other children living within the same household. So far the researchers have run the study in Philadelphia, Chicago and California. It will be interesting to learn how results vary across demographics and by region.

5. Four times more people signed up for saving when it was less painful.

Choice architecture is only as effective to the extent it can be implemented, says Hal Hershfield, explaining that today’s gig economy of freelancers requires new approaches for workplace retirement savings. One way is by tackling the “wealth illusion” that makes us feel like lump sums are more valuable than the same amount broken into smaller increments. A 2017 study of nearly 9,000 people using a fintech app offered participants savings plans of either $5/day, $35/week, or $150/month. Although the overall dollar amounts are equivalent, nearly four times as many people enrolled when framed daily versus monthly. The more granular framing reduced the pain of starting a savings program.

And it begs the question about other payment plans: are quarterly taxes easier to swallow than annual? Would we pay down loans faster if done weekly versus monthly? How would our sense of wealth vary if our paychecks deposited daily?

6. Where will rats pop up next in the city? Answering questions with government research.

Our government counterparts are running RCTs and innovating with the best of them. Take The Lab for the DC mayor’s office, for example. Director David Yokum describes the docket of 20 to 30 active projects that include:

  • The world’s largest RCT with police body cameras, which did not show a difference in use of force, citizen complaints, or judicial outcomes when body cams were used
  • A pilot study on flexible rent subsidies that gives clients more autonomy on how and when to spend resources
  • Developing a computer model to predict where rats will pop up in the city, which so far correlates with human population density and building age

The Lab also applies insights to internal structures and processes to improve procurement, data sharing, etc., and to expand their capacity to do behavioral work via a podcasts and an annual Form-a-Polooza. We’re looking forward to keeping tabs on their progress and seeing similar units in other cities.