If you’re like many people, “nudging” is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of “behavioral economics.” For example, “nudging” can help families eat healthier by making fruits and vegetables the most prominently featured item in the grocery store. Nudges and other types of low-cost tweaks to policy design have had some impressive impacts in Latin America and the Caribbean on things like savings and tax compliance.
Insights from cognitive psychology, which deals with mental processes like reasoning, problem-solving, and memory, inform the nudge-type interventions that are traditionally associated with behavioral economics. But behavioral economics also incorporates insights from social psychology (how people’s attitudes and behavior are influenced by others) and developmental psychology (the study of learning, behavior, and physical changes that occur over the lifespan), in addition to cognitive psychology.
In a series of blog posts this summer, we will highlight some inspiring examples of how concepts from social and developmental psychology are being used to address a wide range of policy issues.
Let’s Start with Social Belonging
Think back to a class in school that you liked or a work environment that you thrived in. Now contrast that with a class or job that you struggled in. We are very much creatures of our environment. Context shapes our behavior. And one important aspect of context is social belonging.
This refers to how supported, valued, connected, and respected people feel in a given setting. We take cues from the environment to determine whether it is a good fit for who we are; “do people want me to succeed in this environment?” “can I be myself in this environment?” The things I notice may not be the things you notice – we all have different social identities and are attuned to different environmental cues.
Social belonging is especially important in ambiguous situations, such as transitions to a new school or a new job where we are not yet familiar with the culture, norms, or expectations.
Success and Belonging
In many ways this seems like an obvious intuition—of course it’s easier to succeed if you feel like you belong! Nonetheless, we are only just beginning to understand how low-cost, light-touch interventions aimed at improving social belonging can produce meaningful behavior change, particularly for groups that face discrimination and stigma. For instance:
- At a U.S. university, a 1-hour social belonging intervention tripled the percentage of African American students with GPAs in the top 25% of their class. Students in the intervention group read a report explaining that worrying about belonging in college is a common experience and that it gets better with time. To internalize the message, participants then wrote a brief essay reflecting on how their own experiences matched that of the report. Three years later, African American students in the treatment group had higher GPAs and scored higher on self-report health and wellbeing measures, compared to African American students in the control group.
- Providing teachers with a list of five commonalities they share with their students (e.g., likes and dislikes, values, hobbies) resulted in improved teacher/student relationships and higher course grades for ethnic minority students (relative to the control group). This example shows how the quality of the environment (i.e., the teacher/student relationship) can improve, rather than relying on negatively stereotyped groups to shift their own mindset.
Social Belonging Matters for Early Childhood Development Policy, Too.
Take a look at these examples.
- Program participation: Many public-funded early childhood interventions are under-utilized. One explanation is identity mismatch: constant exposure to poverty and social marginalization likely primes an identity of “toughness” that is inconsistent with the identities necessary to respond to early childhood interventions. In response, researchers are experimentally piloting nudges designed to override this influence and affirm parents’ identities as a loving mother or father.
- Mothers enrolled in the NYC Home Visiting Program receive text message reminders to encourage home learning interactions like singing, reading, talking, and playing with their young children. The messages provide positive affirmations such as “you’re a great mother!”, designed to strengthen their identities as mothers.
- Parents of preschool students randomly assigned to the Getting Ready for School Intervention in NYC received individualized invitations and messages from teachers designed to increase participation by making it clear that the program is meant for them.
- Parental sense of belonging and child behavior: A study of Mexican Americans in the U.S. found that on days that parents experienced more discrimination at work, their 3 to 5 year old children had more behavioral problems. The association was especially strong for parents who reported feeling more socially isolated and disconnected. Thus, even very young children seem to be attuned to their parents’ sense of belonging, with potential consequences for behavioral development. Yet another reason to call for measures to combat discrimination in the workplace and beyond!
Examples like these will be discussed in our upcoming LACEA-BRAIN conference. The event is jointly organized by the IDB Behavioral Group, LACEA and the World Bank, and will showcase work at the frontier of behavioral economics, with a special emphasis on applications to policy and to the region. Stay tuned for updates on the meeting and its policy implications for early childhood policy!
In what other ways might social belonging matter for parenting? How could these insights be applied to programs in your country? Tell us in the comments section or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.
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