We pay dearly for our misbeliefs. The recent measles outbreaks around the United States has led to hundreds of deaths and counting. Most health officials had considered measles part of a bygone era. Not so fast, said our very human psychology, ever the gymnast.
There are several reasons why misbeliefs form and persist, reasons that all draw on insights from behavioral science. One reason is misperceiving the likelihood of an event, an error known as availability bias—when we believe something is more likely to happen when it feels salient and easy to imagine or easily comes to mind. If everyone in your community rejects vaccinations and most are healthy, it’s easy to perceive that path as the right one for your children too. There is also simply the lack of availability of any experience of deaths from serious illness like measles as there was 50 plus years ago.
A second reason is that we often take our cues for what is right and wrong from observing what people in our community do (we follow injunctive social norms), and sometimes we can be misled into an incorrect belief. Maybe everyone in your community actually wants to get their children vaccinated, but no one speaks up about it for fear of violating the community’s norm. In this case, everyone carries on unvaccinated, even though they and their neighbors would prefer otherwise.
The recent anti-vaccination fervor and subsequent measles outbreak brought the horrific consequences of misbeliefs to the front page. It also shows just how important it is to correct ideas that can get us and others into trouble.
Many misbeliefs, however, fail to make the front page and preventable problems persist.
Fortunately, two recent interventions point to ways we can correct misbeliefs, in this case to improve women’s well-being. The first helps young women in South Africa reduce their chance of contracting HIV, and the second helps more women join the labor force outside the home in Saudi Arabia.
Misperceiving likelihood: The case of “Sugar-daddies” and HIV risk
The behavioral science consultancy ideas42 examined why young girls in South Africa were still drawn to having sexual relationships with older men, or “sugar daddies,” despite many campaigns informing them that it could put them at risk of getting HIV and AIDs. (Disclosure: ideas42 is a partner of the Behavioral Scientist.)
Age-disparate relationships are common in South Africa and elsewhere in the region—almost a third of partnerships among 15- to 24-year-old women had an age gap of five years or more. Yet HIV prevalence among men aged 20-24 is seven times higher than among 15- to 19-year-old men. A 30-year-old man is five times more likely to have HIV than a 20-year-old man. Consequently, young women are between 2 to 4 times more likely to be HIV positive than boys of the same age.
When ideas42 explored the problem in detail, which included in-depth qualitative research with young women and an implicit response test, they found strong evidence that women were being affected by availability bias. Girls were tending to overweight the HIV risk of partnering with young men because they appeared promiscuous—in both image and behavior. Conversely, girls were underweighting HIV risk in older men—just as some parents today underweight the risk of not vaccinating their children. Girls were failing to account for older men’s cumulative sexual behavior because it was less visible and salient; smartly dressed, with a nice car and showering their girls with gifts, these men’s outward image projected responsibility and safety to them. Making matters worse, many existing traditional HIV campaigns enforced this image rather than making older men feel risky! Posters like the ones above inadvertently send girls the message that sugar daddies are desirable.
Knowing this incorrect belief was at the root of girls’ behavior gave the team a strong starting point for designing a more effective solution for discouraging girls from partnering with older men. They developed a computer-based game, the “HIV risk game,” to teach young men and women about HIV prevalence and the risk of contracting due to their choice of partner.
The results were promising. When asked the question “Is a 20-year-old man or a 30-year-old man more likely to have HIV?” 80 percent of those playing the computer game answered the correctly, compared to just 63 percent in the control group. Follow-up three months later also indicated that girls had taken on board this understanding of risk.
Misperceiving others’ beliefs: Facilitating women to work outside the home in Saudi Arabia
Sometimes we need to understand individual misbeliefs like those of the young girls in the case study above; in other situations, we need to understand what people assume are social beliefs. A 2018 study by a team of economists at the Universities of Chicago and Zurich explored men’s perceptions of support for female labor force participation outside the home in Saudi Arabia. Social norms in the country require women to gain permission from their male guardian—either their husband or father—before they can work. Although women’s rights have improved to some degree (for instance, women have recently won the right to drive), labor force participation is still very low; in 2017 less than 15 percent of Saudi women over the age of 15 were employed, and they must still be segregated from men in the workplace.
The researchers explored whether married men’s private beliefs about women working outside the home differed from their perception of other men’s beliefs. They surveyed 500 married men between the ages of 18 and 35, who were all based in the capital, Riyadh. While many of these men’s wives worked (65 percent), most of those worked at home doing jobs such as customer service calls and data entry, and only 8 percent of wives worked outside the home. Participants each attended a 30-person session to fill out an anonymous online survey, framed as general labor market research. They were grouped by their local area in the city meaning that they were often attending with neighbors they knew; on average, participants reported knowing around half of the other men at their session.
Results from the survey revealed that 87 percent of participants agreed with the statement “In my opinion, women should be allowed to work outside the home.” They were then asked to guess what proportion of other men in their session, many of whom they knew, agreed with that statement. To incentivize accurate responses, participants could win a $20 Amazon voucher. Around 72 percent of the participants underestimated the level of support for women working outside the home. On average, these men guessed that only 63 percent of the other men in their session agreed with the statement, a figure substantially lower the men’s real beliefs. The research team also found evidence of similar misperceptions in a larger, nationwide survey: of the 1,500 married men surveyed, 82 percent agreed with the statement above, and 92 percent of them underestimated the level of support among other married men. Similar levels of actual support and perceptions of support were also evident in a 2010-2011 survey.
These are valuable findings, and they highlight a situation known as pluralistic ignorance, where although the majority privately reject an established social norm, they misperceive the injunctive social norm—what most people approve of or believe—perceiving instead that most others in society still accept and believe in the norm. Such misperceptions will lead them to also continue to comply with the established norm, for fear of disapproval from others, and keep their personal views to themselves and, in this example, their wives in the home.
These research findings also illustrate another approach to behavior change via social norms. Most of the well-known interventions using social norms focus on the use of what are known as descriptive social norms—persuading non-conformers to change their behavior by letting them know what the majority of others are already doing. Yet in this case, the vast majority of women remain inside the home, so informing people of the descriptive social norm would be ineffective. However, an alternative and more effective strategy is to inform people of the true injunctive social norm to try to correct people’s misperceptions and, in turn, persuade them that it’s OK to go against the existing norm since more people than they thought actually approve.
In this case, this strategy had a notable impact on behavior. Around 32 percent of participants whose perceptions of other men’s view had been corrected signed their wives up to a job market service following their completion of the survey, compared to only 23 percent of men whose perceptions had not been corrected. Encouragingly, this impact seemed to be long lasting. Three to five months after the men had attended the sessions, researchers followed up to find out if the men’s wives were now more likely to be employed outside the home. More women had not only applied for work outside the home and attended interviews for those jobs, but rates of employment outside the home also rose by 2 percentage points, from 7.4 percent to 9.4 percent. Their husbands were also more likely to sign their wives up for driving lessons too, showing a positive spillover effect.
Misperceptions and misbeliefs
Both of these cases point to how behavioral science can help us better understand misperceptions and the causes behind misbeliefs. By understanding the origin of these errors, we can begin to correct these misbeliefs. In an era when anti-vaccination arguments sway thousands of people, we can all benefit from trying to understand how misbeliefs spread and, when needed, prevent it.