Research Lead: Disputed Data on Crime-Fighting Tanks, Parsing the Importance of Passion, Boosting Organizations with Behavioral Science, and More

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

I’m just a (science-based) bill on Capitol Hill 

If ever there has been a time when the need for science-based policy has been most apparent, it’s now. But there are reasons why incorporating science into policy is hard—science and policy often move at different paces, incentives for policymakers and scientists to work together can be limited, and members of each group may not understand the processes or vernacular of the other. 

A new study provides evidence for a research-to-policy model that might help. In a randomized controlled trial, researchers matched congressional offices with scientists and conducted a seven-step intervention. Compared to a control group of offices that weren’t matched with scientists, participating congressional offices reported greater value of research for understanding policy issues. What’s more the legislation they introduced had, on average, more evidence-based language. Researchers who took part in the interventions also had greater knowledge of the policy process and were more motivated to engage with policymakers. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

The Research-to-Policy Collaboration (RPC) model to improve policymakers’ use of scientific evidence. The model includes seven steps, beginning with identifying policymakers’ goals (Step 1) and identifying researchers with relevant expertise (Step 2) and concludes with ongoing collaboration between the two (Step 7). Source: PNAS.

Better your organization through behavioral science 

If you’re reading the Behavioral Scientist, you already know that behavioral science has the potential to improve many things, organizations being one of them. But how do you translate behavioral science theory to practice to make your organization the best it can be? A new book helps distill key insights into accessible strategies to embrace behavioral science in your organization. Many of the authors you’ve read in our magazine have contributed their expertise to the resource, including Erik Johnson, who addressed irrational marketing; Kristen Berman, who offered advice for fine-tuning every stage of the product management cycle; Scott Young, who proposed principles for applying behavioral science ethically in the private sector; and Stephen Wendel, who surveyed the state of behavioral science teams worldwide. The digital copy of Building Behavioral Science is available for free as part of Action Design Network’s mission to make behavioral science accessible to the public. [Building Behavioral Science, Action Design Network]

Encouraging employers to get flexible 

Remote work, flexible working arrangements, and working from home have become more normalized during the pandemic. Flexible work is one strategy to help improve gender equality in the workplace and at home, and more job seekers are looking for flexible work arrangements due to the lockdown—but employers don’t seem to be matching demand. To encourage employers to increase flexible job offerings, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) collaborated with the global job site Indeed and used a simple nudge to prompt employers to add flexibility options to their job postings. This small change led to a 20 percent increase in the number of jobs advertised as flexible and a 30 percent increase in applicants for those jobs. According to the report, this change on job-seeking websites could help add additional flex-jobs to the overall economy and increase talent pools of prospective employees. [Behavioural Insights Team; PDF]

The importance of passion in success may not be as universal as some think

Successful people often tout passion as a key component to how they got to the top. But how important is passion? New research suggests that the importance of passion in driving achievement depends on how highly a culture values individualism. For individualistic cultures that promote independent, internal motivation, passion does seem to drive achievement. But that’s not necessarily the case for people from collectivist cultures, who tend to find motivations from external sources, like realizing familial expectations or following cultural norms. These results suggest that a Western-centric model of motivation may overemphasize passion as a necessary part of success in certain contexts. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

No more crime-fighting tanks? Police militarization doesn’t actually make us safer

In 2017, the Trump administration restored police agencies’ access to surplus military equipment, defending the move based on 2017 studies showing that militarization reduces crime and protects police. Some researchers were skeptical of these claims, however, and took a closer look at the data and methods behind these findings. They found the data to be incomplete, flawed, and unreliable. For instance, there are inconsistencies in shipping records, with some equipment never recorded as arriving at the intended police agency. In some cases, these items disappear completely: the researchers couldn’t locate the item in a more recent inventory. Using new analyses of more accurate data, the authors found no evidence that military equipment reduces violent crime or protects officers. [Nature Human Behaviour: 1, 2]

Calls for a ceasefire in the ongoing “memory wars”  

Although “the scientific support for unconscious repressed memories is weak or even nonexistent,” a new study finds that a large number of scholars, clinicians, and the general public continue to endorse belief in this concept. Researchers argue that this belief can be harmful in multiple contexts, from clinicians using “suggestive techniques to excavate purported repressed memories of abuse” from their patients to judges “uncritically accept[ing] the claims of alleged victims of abuse reporting dissociative amnesia, in turn contributing to wrongful convictions.” There’s more work to do in turfing this myth out of our collective knowledge. [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

Despite the abundance of studies, a lot more prejudice-reduction research is needed 

Over the last few years there has been an explosion of research evaluating strategies to reduce prejudice—but how well do these tactics really work? In a presentation for Behavior Change for Good’s seminar series, Betsy Levy Paluck, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, presented research that reviewed over 400 experiments from 2007 to 2019. While many of these studies may end on an optimistic note, she and her coauthors “conclude that much research effort is theoretically and empirically ill-suited to provide actionable, evidence-based recommendations for reducing prejudice.” [Behavior Change for Good]

More bad news for how the pandemic is affecting gender equity 

Celebrations of International Women’s Day earlier this month were overcast by knowing how much the fight for women’s equality has been set back by the pandemic. At this point, we’re familiar with the grim statistics: women are leaving the workforce at a higher rate, disproportionately taking on household labor, and experiencing increased domestic partner violence. Unfortunately, a new study offers more bad news when it comes to gender equity. 

In addition to regressing on actions, it appears that we’ve also backslid in our gender attitudes. Researchers examining the pandemic’s impact on social and political attitudes found that while overall political ideology didn’t change, participants reported stronger beliefs in traditional gender stereotypes (of both men and women) on characteristics such as risk-taking, bravery, and cleanliness than they did before the pandemic. These changes were small, but concerning. The next step for the researchers is trying to tease apart what might be driving these belief shifts. [Journal of Applied Social Psychology]

Something wicked this way comes: Why we believe in harmful magic

Witches, sorcerers, curses, the evil eye … societies around the world believe in the existence of malicious magic users who use their powers to harm others. Manvir Singh argues that our propensity to see others using magic helps us justify our own hostile actions. For example, with the existence of magic, the death of your cows becomes an explainable attack by a rival and not simply a tragic accident. You’re now justified in protecting yourself by ridding your community of your rival. By believing in magic, people create explanations for the unexplainable and are vindicated in their actions toward others they’ve deemed undesirable. This theory could be extended to conspiracy theories as well: they’re another way of creating meaning in a chaotic world and allow us to justify hostile actions toward others. [Current Anthropology, open-source preprint]

Can you get into a crowd’s head? Turns out, not very well

When I (Caitlyn) speak in public, I regularly scan the crowd. Are people following my argument, nodding in agreement? Or do they look completely bored and disengaged? We all tend to do this scanning when presenting publicly, collecting data to make judgements on the crowd’s emotions and changing our presentation style accordingly. New research, however, shows that we aren’t entirely accurate in evaluating the emotions of a crowd. Instead, we fall victim to the “crowd-emotion-amplification effect”—our attention is biased toward the most emotional faces, leading us to overestimate the crowd’s average emotions. Being able to accurately judge crowd emotions shapes behaviors, from altering a presentation mid-talk or intervening if a group of onlookers is perceived to be reacting strongly during a demonstration. To avoid falling prey to the crowd-emotion-amplification effect, try deliberately focusing on less expressive members of the audience. You’ll get a more accurate estimate of what the crowd’s actually feeling. [Psychological Science]

“Humans judge, algorithms nudge”: we’d rather have a computer peeking over our shoulders than a person

Behavior tracking has surged during COVID as workplaces try to monitor their employees who are working from home, understandably raising concerns about intrusiveness and privacy. While employees accept monitoring in some cases—when it can help them improve their performance or achieve goals—research has shown that tracking can make workers feel that their autonomy is being undermined and that they’re being negatively judged. Behavior tracking software isn’t going away. A new paper examining our willingness to be tracked by humans versus technology finds that when they’re going to be tracked, participants were more willing to be monitored by an algorithm than by human observers. This may be because we feel that other people will judge us (and technology won’t—at least not yet). [Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes]

Disclosure: Behavior Change for Good, Behavioural Insights Team, Scott Young, and Kristen Berman are part of Behavioral Scientist’s 2021 organizational partners program, which provides financial support for Behavioral Scientist. Organizational partners do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine. All selections in the Research Lead are independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team.