It's Almost Bedtime. Have You Read to Your Child Yet?

This fall, all across Chicago, hundreds of low-income families with preschool-age children are taking home iPads cased in kid-proof plastic covers, colored bright pink, orange, blue or green. Each comes loaded with an app, “A Story Before Bed,” that allows parents and children to scroll through hundreds of storybooks, from classics like The Ugly Duckling to modern bestsellers like Llama Llama Red Pajama.

What looks like high-tech story time is actually high-stakes social research in action. Every weekday, parents in a randomly selected group are receiving text message reminders, like “Reading isn’t just fun, it improves self-esteem and creativity for your child too!” Once a week, those same parents see charts comparing their reading time to goals they had set the week before and receive recognition for meeting them. As they work through a story, the tablet’s camera and microphone are quietly capturing every moment, gathering data that will soon be pored over by researchers at Chicago Harris hoping to answer a massive question: Can these tiny incentives get parents to spend more time reading to their kids?

The study builds on strong evidence that gaps in literacy emerge at a very early age. By the time they enter preschool, lower-income children have typically heard millions fewer words than their wealthier counterparts. Possible reasons range from the cultural (many parents are simply unaware of the importance of talking to children) to the socioeconomic (low-income parents often straddle multiple jobs, limiting interaction time). But whatever the cause, the takeaway is clear: closing this “word gap” would boost low-income children’s vocabularies and language-processing skills, setting kids up for success in school and later in life.

The Chicago Harris study, known as Parents and Children Together (PACT), is taking a fresh approach to the problem, leveraging technology to collect hard data. The PACT iPads measure each family’s reading time down to the second, and the video and audio recordings let researchers verify that those moments are truly spent reading. The results will add to a growing body of work that’s seeking innovative ways to modify deep-rooted behavior. If text messages and progress updates can increase educational interaction, then similar tactics could easily be extended to thousands of families worldwide, with enormous developmental dividends.

Similar reminders and progress updates have already been used to help people stop smoking and lose weight. “But nobody has really tried to take that approach with respect to parenting or changing parent-child interaction,” says Harris Professor Ariel Kalil, director of the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy. Kalil and fellow Harris Professor Susan Mayer, a former dean of the school, serve as co-directors of the Behavioral Insights and Parenting (BIP) Lab, a new research enterprise based at Harris.

When it comes to changing parents’ behavior, the two have seen what works – and, all too often, what doesn’t. Most voluntary programs have trouble keeping parents engaged, while more involved home visit programs are too costly to adopt widely. With those barriers in mind, the BIP Lab is focusing on “low-cost, light-touch” solutions that are both cheap and simple to stick with. “Everything we’re doing could be done in the real world with reasonable budgets and reasonable amounts of time,” says Mayer.

PACT, which is funded by private foundations and run with help from the family services agency Children’s Home and Aid and ten subsidized preschool centers around Chicago, is the first study to come out of the BIP Lab. Next in the pipeline is “It All Adds Up,” which seeks to teach parents and kids financial literacy through an app-based curriculum, with funding from the nonprofit Aspen Institute. After that will come a trial funded by UChicago’s Population Research Center encouraging parents to use mindfulness practices that reduce stress and improve decision-making.

While the three projects may seem vastly different, Kalil and Mayer describe them in similar terms. Each offers a distinct setting in which to help parents meet the challenging goals they set, and each draws on new, hitherto untested techniques from the emerging field of behavioral science. “I feel like we’re on the cutting edge of creating this new area of inquiry, and I’m super excited about that,” says Kalil.

Kalil and Mayer started the BIP Lab in order to take a bold new approach to the study of parenting. It’s a space for testing gutsy policies that don’t conform to outdated models of human behavior. “We’ve discovered that cognition and decision-making are more complex than we thought,” Mayer reflects. In other words, helping parents do their jobs has proven trickier than it sounds. But that doesn’t mean the solution can’t be as simple as a little nudge.

DAWN OF THE NUDGE

The problems that the BIP Lab is setting out to solve shouldn’t exist in the first place – at least, not for homo economicus.

Born in the pages of economics textbooks, homo economicus – Latin for the “economic man” – is the perfectly rational human. He is able to make every decision based on a fully informed, fully logical cost-benefit analysis. He processes information effortlessly, mentally calculating the optimal decision at every turn. When taxes increase, he buys less. When he gets a credit card, he pays it off right away to minimize interest. When it comes to parenting, he reads to his children exactly the amount needed to guarantee their success later in life.

Forecasting how homo economicus might act is at the heart of neoclassical economics, the utility-maximizing school of economic thought that dominated twentieth-century social science. But he’s no longer the only archetype in town.

“There’s an acknowledgment that the decisions people make aren’t fitting so nicely into our standard models,” says Chicago Harris Assistant Professor Damon Jones. For example, Jones, a public finance expert, noticed that the majority of low-income Americans receive income tax refunds, meaning that they are withholding excessive cash from each paycheck. It didn’t seem rational. “Basically, you’re loaning money to the government at zero interest,” he explains. “That can be costly, especially if you’re living paycheck to paycheck and you’re unable to cover your expenses.”

Jones wanted to know if people were actively choosing optimal withholding rates or if something else was to blame. In a 2012 paper published in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, he looked at a subset of taxpayers whose default withholding rates had been lowered as the result of a little-noticed executive order meant to stimulate the economy. His hunch was right – after a year, only 25 percent had increased their withholding rates back to their former levels. Jones thinks that this may be an example of what economists call “inertia,” an unwillingness to deviate from the default when faced with complex choices.

Jones’ work places him among a growing cohort of Harris faculty whose research is re-evaluating some long-held assumptions about rational behavior. Assistant Professor James Sallee recently showed in a working paper that even though car buyers have easy access to information about vehicle mileage and fuel efficiency, they may not be using it to their advantage when selecting a new car – a phenomenon known as “rational inattention.” “If it takes effort to figure out how much energy efficiency is worth, then there are lots of situations in which it’s rational not to exert the effort,” says Sallee.

The concept deals a blow to the neoclassical truism that more information always means better outcomes. Likewise, psychological and cognitive limitations – the fact that real people, unlike homo economicus, can’t always understand their choices or weigh them clearly – have huge impacts that standard economic models have neglected. According to a recent working paper co-authored by Assistant Professor Benjamin Keys, 20 percent of homeowners who were eligible to refinance their homes in the aftermath of the housing crisis failed to do so. Upon investigation, Keys found evidence that many of those households either misunderstood their options or distrusted the financial institutions, to their serious disadvantage – the process would have saved the average household $11,500. These studies show that a host of overlooked factors are preventing people from making themselves happier. To remove these road blocks, policymakers need to tap the power of the nudge.

The term “nudge” was coined in the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. A bestseller by Harvard legal scholar Cass Sunstein and UChicago economist Richard Thaler, Nudge demonstrated that the neoclassical economic model was in desperate need of an overhaul. Where homo economicus responded to taxes and financial rewards, they wrote, real people respond to nudges. A nudge, as Sunstein and Thaler defined it, “is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” Putting apples at eye level in a cafeteria counts as a nudge, they elaborate. “Banning junk food does not.”

The book gave punchy examples of nudges that had worked well, from the Dutch airport that improved restroom cleanliness by etching flies on urinals to the “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign, which cut the state’s roadside litter by 72 percent in six years. It also recommended nudges that could improve Medicare coverage and increase retirement savings. Policymakers soon took note. British Prime Minister David Cameron was so intrigued that he created the first-ever Behavioral Insights Team – commonly referred to as the “Nudge Unit” – in 2010. By implementing small, low-cost measures like minor tweaks to phrasing and language, the Nudge Unit provoked marked increases in tax repayment and organ donation sign-ups, among other things. And none of it required any legislation.

Following Britain’s success, the White House began recruiting an American nudge unit last year. Led by cognitive neuroscientist Maya Shankar, the team is tasked with finding low-cost measures to make federal agencies more efficient. The BIP Lab, too, has garnered federal attention. Shankar and her team at the Office of Science and Technology Policy invited Kalil and Mayer to the White House on October 16 for a workshop on the early language gap, alongside leaders from academia, philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, federal agencies and the private sector. In a panel on “Innovative Interventions to Bridge the Word Gap,” Kalil and Mayer presented findings from the PACT pilot – parents who had received the nudges were spending nearly 40 percent more time reading to their kids. “We were thrilled to see such promising results,” says Kalil. “We can’t wait for the data on all 500 of our study families to start rolling in.” Back at the BIP Lab, a team of more than 25 undergraduate, MPP and PhD students are busy implementing the study, analyzing the data and helping Kalil and Mayer plan future interventions.

CAN IT WORK?

Early response to the PACT study indicates that the families are eager to participate. “Almost everyone wants to be a good parent,” says Mayer. “Our nudges push them down that path.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the tricks that helped people stop smoking or increase retirement savings will help parents read to their children. Social scientific findings can be highly dependent on context, Jones warns. “Someone will show, ‘Look, this one time when the teacher wore bright orange, the test scores went down two points. So this cues a different emotion in people – therefore, let’s change this policy.’”

Mayer and Kalil counter that this is nothing new. “Every time you do a research project, it is in a context, and that matters,” Kalil says. Furthermore, the underlying psychology that makes nudges work should be fairly universal. “There’s no reason why the behavioral basis for changing these outcomes should be different anywhere,” predicts Mayer.

Yet no nudge is truly one-size-fits-all. “Just as there’s a recognition that the basic rational model doesn’t work for everyone, we also need to recognize that the behavioral models operate on a case-by-case basis,” Keys points out. In a study he co-authored, credit card debt holders received disclosures that specified the monthly payment amount that would let them pay off their balances in three years. Those who had previously been paying the minimum began increasing their monthly payments, which decreased their interest paid, as expected – but there was a catch. The nudge also provoked some who had been paying large amounts every month to reduce their payments, incurring more interest. In the end, the two groups canceled each other out. The nudge had no net effect on interest paid. “You have to be really sensitive,” Keys concludes.

The experiment illustrates another key feature of behavioral science: nudges can oversimplify the complex question of what’s “best” for society. Informing people that they use more energy than their neighbors may help them cut their electric bills, Sallee says, “but shaming people to get them to lower their energy consumption by 1 percent – is that a net plus to society, or did I actually cause them to lose happiness?”

Mayer is quick to draw a distinction between what makes a person happy today versus several years from now. “It may be the case that parents are already optimizing given their current circumstances,” she admits, “but they may not be optimizing for the long term goals they want – that is, they want their children to grow up to be healthy and happy.”

Kalil also emphasizes that PACT, like all good nudges, respects individual autonomy by letting people decide what’s best for them. “All parents think of themselves as good parents. And just like any other parents, they want the best for their children,” she says. “We’re just trying to help them form a habit of executing the thing that they profess to want to do anyway.”

Nudges like those the BIP Lab is testing inevitably invite critiques. Those on the right may dismiss them as intrusive and paternalistic. Those on the left may say they don’t go far enough, ignoring the structural social inequalities that make these studies necessary while instead focusing on “cute, technocratic solutions to mainly minor problems,” as one detractor described the work of the British Nudge Unit.

But Kalil and Mayer are willing to let the data speak for themselves. “This intervention is so cheap that, if it works, I think it would be sort of criminal not to do it,” says Kalil. “We don’t know if it’s going to work. But if it does, why wouldn’t you give that to everybody?”

The two stand confident that the BIP Lab can be a force for good in an environment where it’s much needed. “This is not a cure for poverty,” Mayer states frankly. “This is a way to improve children’s lives. And we think it really will do that.” 

—Jake J. Smith

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