Research Lead: A Traffic Intervention Backfires, How Love in Literature Tracks Economic Development, and More

You’re reading the Research Lead, a monthly digest connecting you to noteworthy academic and applied research from around the behavioral sciences.

“Can behavioral interventions be too salient? Evidence from traffic safety messages”

“1669 DEATHS THIS YEAR ON TEXAS ROADS,” read a digital highway sign along the interstate. If you had to guess, what impact do you think this would have on your driving? Twenty-eight states use a similar program, where highway signs display the number of state-wide traffic deaths so far that year, reaching over 100 million drivers annually. 

Recently, a research team led by Jonathan Hall and Joshua Madsen identified an opportunity for a natural experiment to evaluate the impact of these signs on traffic accidents. In Texas, these messages are only displayed during the week leading up to the Texas Department of Transportation’s monthly board meeting. The authors looked into the effect of the signs and report that not only are these signs ineffective in preventing crashes, there are actually more crashes while these messages were displayed—an estimated 4.5 percent increase in the first six miles (10 kilometers) downstream from one of these signs. They present back-of-the-envelope calculations which suggest the Texas signage leads to an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 deaths each year at a cost of $377 million.

Why do the signs backfire? Hall and Madsen suggest that these signs temporarily distract drivers, increasing cognitive load and inducing anxiety which makes it more difficult to safely react to changing traffic conditions. These findings imply that the other 27 states would do well to evaluate the impact of the signs on their drivers. Additionally, the study serves as a cautionary tale for all those who are working to incorporate behavioral insights into public policy—the authors remind us that “measuring an intervention’s effect is important, even for simple interventions, because good intentions need not imply good outcomes.” [Science]

“The cultural evolution of love in literary history”

If Tina Turner was an economist as well as a singer, maybe she would have sung, “What’s love got to do with … economic development?” And she would have been onto something. In his 1994 book, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, medieval historian Georges Duby posited that economic development can help explain the increased importance of romantic love in the Western world. Interestingly, historians of literature have observed that romantic love became more culturally significant beyond the West during roughly the same time period, including in India, Persia, China, Japan, and the Arab world. 

Across a series of four studies published in Nature, Nicolas Baumard and a team of researchers examined this cross-cultural convergence to figure out if economic development could help explain the rise in the significance of romantic love. The authors first built a database of 3,800 years of ancient literary fiction and their narrative elements, such as love at first sight, tragic separations, and vows of eternal fidelity. Then, they analyzed the relationship between these mentions of love and measures of economic development in a given region. The authors report a positive relationship between the mentions of love and economic factors like GDP per capita, population density, and size of the largest city. [Nature]

What’s missing in how we understand the concept of consent

Our understanding of consent is missing a psychological component, argues Vanessa Bohns in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most built out definition of consent comes from the legal domain and contains three tenets: To consent, say, to a medical procedure or sex, an individual must have 1) the capacity to consent, 2) the appropriate information to consent, and 3) must be able to consent voluntarily. Bohns points out that in the legal domain consent is often viewed from an outsider’s perspective—a judge or jury tasked with using these tenets to determine legal liability. She makes the case that psychology has something to add by letting us in on the subjective perspective of the person given consent. Psychologists, she writes, have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of consent by asking questions like: “What makes an actor believe that they have the capacity to consent, believe they are adequately informed about what they are getting into, and feel as if they can refuse or walk away from the situation?” [Perspectives on Psychological Science, open access]

In need of a new logic for the Anthropocene

In Behavioral Science & Policy, Andrew Hoffman and colleagues argue that humanity needs to shift the logic of our institutions if we are going to successfully navigate the Anthropocene—the current geological epoch defined by significant human-caused changes to the planet’s climate. The authors write that three types of institutions—regulatory (governments), normative (e.g. education curricula), and cognitive (implicit beliefs and agreements)—are all currently dominated by the logic of free-market capitalism and technological optimism which views nature as a resource to be exploited. The logic that guides our institutions is neither natural nor static—think back to before the scientific revolution when religion and mysticism provided the logic for the workings of the natural world—which means shifting the logic could help shift our approach to living in the Anthropocene. They argue for a logic based around stewardship and outline five research-based policies that can drive change at different scales, from the incremental to the transformational. [Behavioral Science & Policy]

“Psychology as if the whole earth mattered: Nuclear threat, environmental crisis, and the emergence of planetary psychology.”

At the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, a small, short-lived organization, The Center for Psychology and Social Change, helped promote a shift in thinking about how psychology science could help us understand a rapidly changing environment. Originally founded to grapple with the threat of nuclear war, the group pivoted from a collection of psychologists at the fringe studying the anxiety of living with world-ending technology to a multidisciplinary movement exploring a person’s relationship with the dangerous, changing conditions of their planet. Historian James Dunk traces this history in a new article. He writes, “As they completed this pivot from the nuclear threat to the environmental crisis, at the end of the Cold War…these researchers displayed the form and function of what might be called a planetary psychology—of psychological theory and practice which broaches the planetary context of the individual psyche.” [History of Psychology, open access]

“Outside the ‘Cultural Binary’: Understanding Why Latin American Collectivist Societies Foster Independent Selves”

Psychologists have differentiated between individualist and collectivist cultures for years. They’ve also examined the implications of those cultural differences for individuals who live in those cultures—the general assumption is that individualist cultures, like the U.S. and Western Europe, foster independent selves, while collectivist cultures, like East Asia and Latin America, foster interdependent selves (i.e., selfhood defined in relation to one’s network). However, a recent meta-analysis found that, on average, Latin American samples tended to emphasize their independent selves, within cultures that were more collectivistic. The research raises two questions. The first is, How did this form of self-construal arise in Latin American societies? Here the authors point to the prevalence of herding (a mode of food production that allows for greater geographic mobility), the history of frontier settlement, and the established cultural proclivity for free and frequent emotional expression.

The other question the research raises is why the finding might seem surprising, but perhaps shouldn’t be. The authors explain that when findings from parts of the world that aren’t typically a focus of psychological research deviate from what’s expected, “these troubling findings may be dismissed as ‘anomalies,’ forcing the kaleidoscopic diversity of global cultures into an oversimplified ‘binary’ model of cultural differences. In this way, cultures of less powerful or less affluent world regions may be misrepresented or even omitted entirely from the scientific discourse.” [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

An anti-poverty policy that worked left to expire

During the pandemic, congress passed a temporary expanded child tax credit. Parents received $3,000 for every child aged six to 17 and $3,600 for children under six. The Center on Poverty & Social Policy (CPSP) at Columbia University estimated the program reduced the percentage of children in poverty from 15.8 percent to 11.9 percent. But that credit expired in December 2021. In January 2022, an estimated 3.7 million more were in poverty than the month before. One working paper estimated the program would recoup its cost 10 times over, and a group of behavioral scientists penned an open letter urging Congress to extend the credit. Without the credit, the CPSP reported the poverty rate for children in the United States at around 17 percent. [Center on Poverty & Social Policy report, open letter, National Bureau of Economic Research working paper]

REDISCOVERY — “What do bosses do?” 

In 1974, Economist Stephen Marglin asked a not uncontroversial question: “What do bosses do?” In a two-part paper, Marglin traced the economic history of hierarchy and job-specialization in the workplace as it functioned during the development of capitalism. Echoing refrains from today’s conversations around work, Marglin asks in his opening line: “Is it possible for work to contribute positively to individual development in a complex industrial society, or is alienating work the price that must be paid for material prosperity?”

Marglin explores economic history to answer the question, touching on Adam Smith’s pin factory, coal mines in England, and farming in Russia. Hierarchical authority and worker specialization, he argues, did not develop as a function of increasingly complex work that needed coordinating. Instead, hierarchical authority and the extreme specialization of labor (e.g. working on only part of the pin) emerged before production was all that complex. “Separating tasks assigned to each workman,” Marglin writes, “was the sole means by which the capitalist could, in the days preceding costly machinery, ensure that he would remain essential to the production process.” 

Marglin’s words likely ring controversial today. But many may find themselves asking similar questions to the ones he raised nearly a half century ago and wondering, How did we get here? (See also our interview with Barry Schwartz on Why We Work.) [The Review of Radical Political Economics, open access, 1974]