Research Lead: Commute Nostalgia, Lessons from NASA, Nobel Winners, Crusaders, Cooperators and the Complicit, and More

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

Commutes are missing, are you missing your commute?

Right now for many of us, the lines between work lives and home lives are blurry at best. While we may be loving the shortened commute from our beds to our desk, we might be missing out on the chance to engage in something researchers call role-clarifying prospection. Essentially, study authors found that the commute to work can be a chance to think about upcoming work tasks and transition from our “home self” into our “work self,” which can be especially beneficial for employees who experience work-family conflict (i.e., responsibilities from work bleeding into responsibilities at home and vice versa). With many of us experiencing higher than normal degrees of work-family conflict, taking time to intentionally transition into our professional roles and creating clearer boundaries between work and home responsibilities could be beneficial. [Organization Science]

Being a jerk doesn’t get you ahead at work

The nice guy at work gets overlooked, the brash bully gets a promotion. While this might have all the makings of a cheesy Hollywood flick, new research suggests that people with “disagreeable personalities” (i.e., people who are selfish, combative, and manipulative) don’t actually end up gaining more power in their workplaces. While those individuals do behave in dominant, aggressive ways typically associated with power attainment, these behaviors end up being cancelled out by their general lack of kindness and generosity. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

A lil’ behavioral sumin’ for your court summons

A redesigned summons form helped 30,000 New Yorkers avoid arrest warrants over three years, according to a research team from ideas42, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Chicago. In New York City around 250,000 people a year are issued a summons to court for low-level offenses, like violating open container laws or trespassing in a park. A whopping 40 percent of those summoned, around 100,000 New Yorkers, never show up to court. For everyone involved—those summoned, the court system, police officers—this is a bad outcome, and one that carries significant costs. The worst is that if you’re summoned and don’t show up to court, a warrant is put out for your arrest; you may also face a fine and time in jail.

Old (A) and redesigned (B) New York City summons forms. Source: Science

The research team hypothesized that many people missed their court date not because of any malintent, but because of much more mundane reasons—they didn’t know they were summoned or they simply forgot the date. To test this hypothesis, the researchers redesigned the summons form to make the court appearance date and consequences of not appearing more salient. They also paired the new form with text message reminders. The text reminder that worked best combined a planning prompt and a reminder of the consequences if the person didn’t show.

Because minor offenses are dismissed at a high rate when people do show up for court, the authors estimate that their interventions “likely resulted in about 20,000 people having their cases fully dismissed instead of having an open warrant.”

“Our findings suggest that criminal justice policies can be made more effective and humane by anticipating human error in unintentional offenses,” they conclude. [Science]

Does religion make people good or bad? It’s complicated

“Both ‘religion’ and ‘morality’ contain multitudes, and so their relationship likely does too. Here we summarize the complex effects of religion on morality through a taxonomy of three moral characters: the Cooperator, the Crusader, and the Complicit. Cooperators sacrifice self-interest for the benefit of others, crusaders show conviction to their religious community by harming outgroups, and the complicit use religion to justify selfish behavior.” [Current Opinion in Psychology]

The trinity of religious moral character. Credit: Avital Glibicky. Source: Current Opinion in Psychology

Going once, going twice, and the Nobel Prize in economics goes to . . .

Although we typically highlight new research, this month we’ve made an exception to highlight the prize-winning work on auction theory by Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson. A branch of game theory, auction theory describes how people act in auctions and has been used to change how public goods are distributed, from carbon emissions credits to fishing quotas. For a sample of their work, check out “Auctions and Bidding: A Primer” by Milgrom and “Strategic Analysis of Auctions” by Wilson. [Journal of Economic Perspectives, The Handbook of Game Theory].

Two heads—and two cognitive styles—are better than one

“We tested a means of improving crowd wisdom by diversifying the bases on which the individuals that made up the crowd formed their judgments—either through intuition or through analytical thinking. We found that crowds with a high level of diversity in the cognitive processes they used made better judgments than crowds with lower levels of diversity. We also found that the magnitude of the benefits increased with crowd size. This work suggests that we can improve crowd wisdom not by selecting individuals who each make better judgments but by aggregating the judgments of people who ‘go with their gut’ and of people who carefully think through the problem.” [Psychological Science]

Learning from NASA to apply behavioral science research to policy

A team of researchers is preaching caution when translating behavioral science research to practice. Scientists should apply their insights to help society overcome crises, they argue, but the way behavioral science research is often conducted—such as using limited and WEIRD samples, imprecise effect sizes, and lack of replication—“makes it difficult to know whether our efforts will do more good than harm.” To mitigate this risk, the authors propose an approach to assess evidence quality before broad, societal application, and dissemination. Inspired by NASA’s system to assess technology readiness, they have developed a tool to assess whether preliminary evidence is ready to use in the wider world. The adaptation isn’t a perfect one-to-one, as the authors point out, due to the “many differences between behavioural and rocket science.” [Nature Human Behavior]

Proposed social and behavioral science readiness levels for dissemination and implementation. Source: Nature Human Behavior

Flattening COVID-19’s emotional distress curve

In the early days of this pandemic (how long has it been?), almost all communication strategies focused on flattening the curve—keeping daily case counts low enough so that health care systems wouldn’t be overwhelmed. Now, several peaks later, some scientists are saying there’s another curve we need to focus on flattening: the emotional distress curve. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic can be considered a global trauma event, and these researchers argue that behavioral health considerations should be included at every stage of response, and they provide actionable steps for how to do so. While experts in behavioral health have offered similar calls to action in the past (that we failed to follow in our coronavirus response), the authors urge leaders “to reflect with humility and curiosity on the strengths and limitations of the behavioral health response to COVID-19 to ensure a better response in the future.” [American Psychologist]

150 case studies, 17 organizations: A deep dive into applied behavioral science in development organizations

If you found Stephen Wendel’s recent piece describing results of a global survey of applied behavioral science teams interesting, you’ll also want to take a look at a new World Bank report documenting the application of behavioral science in international development organizations. A follow-up from their 2018 report that highlighted the emergence of behavioral units embedded in governments, the most recent volume covers lessons learned from more than 150 case studies from 17 different organizations. [World Bank]

Local news results overshadowed by national outlets on Google

As a science journalism nonprofit, we believe in abundant and robust news coverage, of which local newsrooms play an important role. Unfortunately, many small news organizations are struggling to survive. Behavioral Scientist recently started syndicating some of our pieces with local newsrooms in order to support their work while expanding the coverage and impact of behavioral science insights, which made this study even more troubling (although not particularly surprising). By collecting over 12 million Google news responses in all U.S. counties using a set of keywords, researchers found that national news outlets dominate search results. Based on their findings, the authors argue that technological platforms like Google divert web traffic—and sorely needed advertising dollars—away from local news sources, which threatens their survival. [Nature Human Behavior]