Chicago Harris Welcomes White House Behavioral Insights Expert

On April 23, Chicago Harris and the Behavioral Insights and Parenting (BIP) Lab welcomed Maya Shankar, Senior Advisor for the Social and Behavioral Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), who delivered the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy’s (CHPPP) annual Science, Technology and Society Lecture. Shankar and teammate Will Tucker, Social and Behavioral Sciences Team fellow and vice president at ideas42, spoke about federal initiatives that are using behavioral science to design programs that work better and cost less. 

In early 2014, the OSTP launched the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team – a group of behavioral science experts recruited into government to harness behavioral insights and help federal programs better serve the nation while saving taxpayer dollars. The team was created in response to President Obama’s call to promote evidence-based policy. It had a successful first year, launching a wide variety of evidence-based pilots with objectives ranging from connecting veterans with employment and educational counseling benefits to helping members of the Armed Forces save for retirement. In her CHPPP lecture, titled "A Government for the People," Shankar discussed the creation of the team and its vision, along with examples of current projects being implemented in collaboration with federal agencies. 

By now, most have heard of “nudges,” the tools of behavioral economics that can help parents to overcome biases, inertia and other human foibles to make, and execute, better decisions. Until recently, the field has focused on finance, health and economic decision-making. But scholars at Chicago Harris are now asking if these nudges can be applied to parenting decisions.

“Scholars in many different disciplines recognize the importance of parenting for promoting children’s development,” says Professor Ariel Kalil, co-director of the new BIP Lab, “and numerous programs have attempted to change parental behavior in low-income families. But most of these efforts have been intensive, expensive and not completely successful. There is an important opportunity to learn how to support parental decision-making using a set of low-cost, light-touch behavioral tools.”    

Kalil and Professor Susan Mayer, BIP Lab co-directors, have long worked on issues of parenting and early human capital development. As director of CHPPP at Chicago Harris, Kalil has been instrumental in advancing understandings of parent-child engagement and children’s development in economically disadvantaged circumstances. Mayer, former dean and now professor at Harris, has chronicled the impact of poverty on families and neighborhoods, and has been an important voice in the country’s social welfare policy debates.

The two joined forces to start the BIP Lab. The lab is the first in the nation to explore how lessons from behavioral science might be applied to parenting as a route to healthy child development. In other words, they wonder if behavioral incentives like timely reminders, goal-setting, feedback and social recognition can help families execute their good intentions when it comes to childrearing.  

Since beginning last year, BIP Lab has launched several research projects and formed partnerships with organizations such as the University of Chicago Urban Labs, as well as with community organizations like Head Start centers, Children's Home + Aid (Chicago’s oldest social service organization) and Data Science for Social Good

The BIP Lab’s first major field experiment, which uses several key tools from behavioral science to encourage parents to read more to their children, is just wrapping up—and its findings are striking. Mothers in the experimental group, who were nudged with goal-setting, feedback, text reminders and social rewards, read to their children at more than twice the rate of those in the control group. 

Other BIP Lab pilot projects are using techniques of mindfulness to reduce parental stress, and testing a two-generation program to boost “financial health.” Programs to boost pre-K attendance, improve children’s sleep routines and test the impact of peer influence on parents’ decision-making are also in development. 

The projects are not intended as a silver bullet to the complicated, enduring issues that low-income parents face everyday. Rather, they’re a “light touch, low-cost” way to help parents achieve their own parenting goals. 

“Ultimately we’re asking, 'Can we draw lessons from cognitive science to move people closer to their goals without getting derailed by events in their life?'” says Mayer. “We’re interested in providing support for parents to reach the goals they set for themselves.”

— Barbara Ray

Want to learn more? Visit the BIP Lab website at biplab.uchicago.edu.