social norms

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The effectiveness of specific, direct appeals over general, the-world-will-be-better statements has been an important academic lesson for policymakers. More evidence of this finding, with a small but important wrinkle, comes from a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston working paper on blood donation.

As part of a blood donor awareness campaign, a random group of people were given a flyer that asked them in a yes-or-no question to make a blood donation as part of a “strong active decision treatment,” and then to offer a specific time and place for their donation to take place. Another “weak active decision” group were also asked to make a yes-or-no decision, but were also given a specific option to not make a decision about blood donation at that time. Finally, a third group, the control group, received no request for a blood donation.

Donations increased among those without strongly formed preferences, not among those without previous strong preferences, an important distinction that the authors emphasize to policymakers. Direct appeals, in other words, are likely to be most successful in thin, low information environment, not when people have already made up their minds.

The strong (active decision) also affects people’s stated willingness to donate blood relative to a weak (active decision) intervention if they have no fully formed preferences about the issue. In the field of blood donation, the effect on the preference statement is, of course, less relevant. However, it indicates that an (active decision) might be effective in other social areas, like post-mortem organ donation or individual saving behavior, where a statement with low immediate costs puts people on a donor list or in a savings plan. This might be seen as an ethically attractive alternative to presumed consent.

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The last estimate we found for the influence of smoking habits by a spouse was 40 percent, meaning the spouse of a person who quits is 40 percent more likely to quit as well. A new study, of a 30-year social network comprised of 12,000 people (the same one used to study obesity), authored by a Harvard medical professor and a UC-San Diego political scientists, estimates spousal influence at almost 70 percent! Even having a co-worker who quits increased a person’s chance of quitting by 34 percent.

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Smoking is not the only public health area where peer influences can be noticeable. Similar influences may shape the spread of obesity. Last year, a medical professor and a political scientist published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine the followed the spread of obesity among some 12,000 people from 1971 to 2003. You may have caught this in the news, but it’s worth taking a peek at this animated graphic (with audio) of how obesity spreads across this network of people. The clip last about two minutes.

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Campaign strategists and political scientists studied how to nudge people to vote for more than a century. The strategists have concentrated on nudging (and shoving) people to vote for a particular candidate. The political scientists, trying to stay detached from partisanship, have studied how to nudge people to fulfill their civic duty go to the polls on election day. In the last few years the cutting edge of political science research on voter mobilization has involved a method known as a field experiment. Originally pioneered in the 1920s and recently re-pioneered by Alan Gerber and Don Green at Yale, field experiments involve randomly sending letters, airing radio and print advertisements, phoning homes, or sending canvassers door-to-door making personal pitches. The random assignment of these various forms of voter outreach is the crucial piece of field experiments – call it the “magic” – that enables researchers to calculate clean estimates for how much these nudges affect voter decisions.

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The annual federal tax gap in the United States is $400 billion. That means Americans, collectively, pay $400 billion less to the IRS than they should every year. To close this gap, an accounting professor and a law professor recently suggested that the IRS begin shaming people who avoid paying taxes by publishing and publicizing their names – similar to the strategies used by some law enforcement officials that publish the names of “Johns” arrested for soliciting sex.

Enforcement through shaming could attack all forms of tax abuse. These include high-income and corporate taxpayers who take artificial losses to offset taxable gains, as well as smaller-scale abuses such as the widespread practice of individuals illegally claiming home office deductions.

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Coercive power is government’s most frightening weapon (one that libertarian paternalists fear as much as libertarians), and the conventional wisdom inside and outside of academia says that bureaucracies that use this power to implement and enforce a given regulation will be more successful than those that do not.

Ironically, when looking at the data, there are a number of cases where coercion is not necessary for a successful policy (though no universal rules about when these cases occur).

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Our colleague at Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, Noah Goldstein, has co-penned an excellent study (which we mention in Nudge) in this month’s Journal of Consumer Research. Goldstein and his co-authors manipulated appeals on the shiny information cards we all see in hotel bathrooms reminding us to save the environment by reusing our towels. Some guests were urged to join other “citizens” in reusing their towels and saving the earth. Others were urged to join other “men and women.” Others read a sign that simply told them what percentage of users of the room they were staying in reused their towels. Guess which appeal was most successful?

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