Research Lead: Nudges Work on Thaler Too, Psychology’s Racial Blindspot, Overestimating How Much Your Political Rivals Hate You, and More 

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

Nudges work on Richard Thaler too

Recently, The Nudgefather mused on the question of “what’s next for nudging and choice architecture?” He did his best to ignore the pleas from Katy Milkman to write the introduction to the special issue she was organizing. But just when he thought he was out of the obligation, she pulled him back in. In a light and speedy read, Thaler lays out how Milkman’s emails used behavioral science to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. More importantly, he shares his hopes and dreams for what comes next. Among these is the desire to see behavioral scientists involved in creating choice architecture from the start.

“Often, behavioral scientists are asked to help change a particular behavior but are severely limited in the ways they can alter the underlying environment,” he explains. “Rarely, if ever, are researchers given the opportunity to design the entire choice architecture. We get to remodel the kitchen, but not design the entire home, let alone pick the lot on which it is built.” [Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes]

Comparing reported effects from applied “nudge units” with those from academic journals

A new working paper compares the effects of behavioral interventions reported by two large nudge units versus the effects of behavioral interventions reported in 26 academic papers. The authors find that academic articles report greater intervention effects, on average, than do the applied nudge units. This is due to several factors: publication bias in academia, higher power and sample sizes in applied work, and the nature of academic versus applied work—the former relying more on in-person samples, the latter relying more on mass communication, for instance. 

Traditionally, behavioral science knowledge has flowed from the academy into the applied world (that is, when it makes it out; and acknowledging that many researchers live in both worlds). One of the lessons here is that different research contexts, with different incentives (e.g., achieving impact at scale) can complement one another, keep the other honest, and overall provide a more accurate picture of behavioral science research and interventions. [Working paper]

Retraction of controversial and unsound Psych Science paper

It’s hard to pack the full story of this paper into a blurb. Here it goes (with lots of links): earlier this year a team of researchers published a paper in Psychological Science that claimed countries with lower IQs tend to see an increase in violent crime if religiosity decreases. Or, said another way, higher IQ countries don’t descend into chaos if there’s a dip in religious belief because people in those countries are smarter. From the abstract: “We hypothesized that religion would have greater utility for regulating violent behavior among societies with relatively lower average IQs than among societies with relatively more cognitively gifted citizens.”

From later in the paper: “The prescriptive values of highly educated groups (such as secularism, but also libertarianism, criminal justice reform, and unrestricted sociosexuality, among others) may work for groups that are highly cognitively sophisticated and self-controlled, but they may be injurious to groups with lower self-control and cognitive ability.”

After it was published, people began calling into question the claims and methods of the paper (for one, see statistician Andrew Gelman’s post here). What it boiled down to, as Will Gervais pointed out, was that the country-level IQ data that the paper relied on was shoddy and unreliable, as were the paper’s methods. According to the data used, a large percentage of people in sub-Saharan Africa would have an IQ below 70—which, in technical terms, would mean a designation as intellectually disabled. Yikes. 

And so, as all controversies worth their salt are, a debate about the findings and methods of the paper was waged on Twitter, between Gervais, the authors of the paper, and others. Despite some fiery back and forth, the authors of the original paper ultimately decided to retract the article, because of their poor data sources and methods.

The current editor-in-chief of the journal, Patricia J. Bauer, offered this statement. The editor-in-chief who oversaw the publication of the article, Stephen Lindsay, posted this apology for his role in the paper’s publication.

Which brings us to our next study…

Psychology’s racial diversity blindspot

How the heck did the now-retracted paper described above make it through peer review and into one of psychology’s flagship journals? Ask and ye shall receive. A days-old paper in Perspectives in Psychological Science (Psych Science’s sister journal—both are published by the Association for Psychological Science) outlines the racial diversity blind spot in psychological research. 

 “A scarcity of research participants of color may be symptomatic of a scarcity of scholarship of color, which may itself be symptomatic of a scarcity of editors of color,” the authors write. “Thus, an important question is whether a lack of racial diversity among psychology’s editors and authors has systemic implications for what and who is included in the permanent scientific record.” 

This work took on new meaning for me (Evan) after I read the apology mentioned in the previous blurb. The team of authors on this paper analyzed 26,000 empirical studies between 1974 and 2018 in several cognitive, developmental, and social psychology journals and found that papers on race are rare, authors and editors tend to be white, and participant samples lack diversity. Look no further than the retracted paper above for evidence of the effects of this blind spot in the field. [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

Democrats and Republicans are the same . . . in how much they think the other group hates them 

We all know—and talk, read, and listen about—how polarized this current political moment is, driving differences of opinion on things that aren’t even political. As it turns out, though, there are key similarities that bind the two parties together. 

In a recent paper on meta-perceptions (meaning, how you perceive the other group’s perception of you) and political partisanship, researchers found that Republicans and Democrats equally dislike and dehumanize each other. However—and this is key—participants from both parties believed that the levels of prejudice and dehumanization held by the outgroup were double what was actually reported. In other words, if you identify as a Democrat, Republicans dislike you—just much less than you think they do (and vice versa). These misperceptions may partially explain the widening gap and hostility between the two parties. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

A new way to incentivize climate action 

The voluntary commitments of the Paris agreement aren’t working well enough fast enough, leading researchers to explore other collective action that could reduce emissions. This paper provides evidence that matching-commitment agreements might be one such solution. Rather than just picking and sticking to an individual climate goal, in matching agreements each country commits to reducing its own emissions by an amount that depends on the reductions of other countries. In a simpler example, think about matching contributions to a charity—you pledge money, but only give it if a certain funding goal is reached. Using a series of climate games, researchers found that this strategy has the potential to reduce emissions and increase well-being of participating countries. Although the research is preliminary, matching-commitment agreements might be a solution to other public-goods problems in which enforcement is difficult. [Scientific Reports

I’ve had a hard life, too! Why do people deny class privilege? 

Americans tend to be inaccurate judges of class and minimize how important it is in their lives. For example, about a third of people in the top five percent (with incomes greater than $150,000) rate themselves as middle class. Past research has found that Americans often downplay the role of class in their daily experiences and that white Americans respond to evidence of racial privilege by claiming hardship

A new paper demonstrates that when presented with evidence of class privilege, people claim to have suffered hardship. And they do so in order to maintain a positive sense of self. When unable to make the case for hardships, participants claimed increased effort in the workplace and worked harder on a difficult task in a lab experiment. Ultimately, the authors conclude that people so want to believe in their own merit that they employ strategies to make their privilege invisible. [Journal of Personality and Social Psychology]. 

“Mommy brain” probably isn’t real 

It’s a persistent myth that women become scatterbrained and forgetful after having children. One popular parenting website claims “Foggy-headedness goes hand in hand with motherhood” before presenting a slideshow of mothers committing funny gaffes—like looking for a cellphone while using it as a flashlight. 

I’m not sure if this will make parents feel better or worse, but a new study has presented evidence that “mommy brain” doesn’t exist. Using an attention test, researchers compared reaction times between mothers and nonmothers and found that mothers performed equally well (and in some cases, better) than those without children. However, it’s important to note that the mothers recruited for the study were all at least one year postpartum in order to test long-term effects of maternity. This particular research can’t speak to the existence of “mommy brain” in those sleep-deprived early months of caring for a younger infant. [Current Psychology]