Research Lead: Personalized Nudges, Milgram’s Shock Experiment in VR, A Vote for Vote-By-Mail, and More

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

Let’s Get Personal … Nudges

Nudges have been critiqued for being too blunt of a tool. For instance, a retirement savings default may be helpful for a group of employees on average, but subgroups, say under-savers or over-savers, might be helped or harmed by this one-size-fits-all approach. As such, there have been calls to develop a more personalized approach to nudging (see here in our collection: “Imagining the Next Decade of Behavioral Science”). 

This paper outlines two dimensions that behavioral scientists could consider when designing personalized nudges: choice personalization and delivery personalization. Think of choice personalization as “personalization within nudges”—the method of nudge has been set (say, a default) but is tailored to specific individuals (different default levels of retirement contributions, for those over-savers and under-savers). Think of delivery personalization as “personalization as across nudges”—understanding the most effective method to nudge a certain individual. Personalizing nudges does come with data privacy and legal concerns, but these can be overcome, the paper argues. [Behavioural Public Policy]

Conducting Milgram’s Shock Experiment in VR to Understand Conformity

This experiment placed 60 male participants in virtual reality at a bar, where a woman was being harassed by a group of men. Participants first experienced the scene as a member of the group harassing the woman and then re-lived the scene in one of three conditions: as the woman, as another member of the group, or an empty bar (the control condition). The researchers, curious about how group pressure influences decision-making, later conducted a virtual version of Milgram’s shock experiment with the participants, where the recipient of the shocks was a woman. They found that those who had experienced the scenario as the women, gave less shocks than those who had reexperienced it as a member of the group. 

There are limitations to the study, such as needing to understand gender dynamics in different scenarios, including testing how these participants would have administered shocks to a male recipient after the same experience. Lastly, the research also offers two ways that virtual reality may be able to play a unique role in research: allowing people to have experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have and use of previous research paradigms, like Milgram’s shock experiment, that researchers are unable to ethically conduct in-person today. [Full article: Nature Scientific Reports; Author perspective, “A Shocking Outcome in Virtual Reality”]

Vote By Mail Gets a (Preliminary) Stamp of Approval

This working paper argues that voting by mail in the United States is a viable option for this November’s presidential election. “Our paper has a clear takeaway,” the authors write. “Claims that vote-by-mail fundamentally advantages one party over the other appear overblown. In normal times, based on our data at least, vote-by-mail modestly increases participation while not advantaging either party.” [Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research]

Looking to History to Understand Economic Development 

An intriguing paper on the origins of modern economies:

“Built from a union of two previously disparate fields—economic history and development economics—a body of research has now established that many of the contemporary differences in economic outcomes are explained by historical factors that have been shown to have effects that are felt for decades, centuries, and in some cases even millennia,” this paper begins. 

“As an illustration of the importance of history for understanding present-day economic development, consider contemporary differences in levels of economic well-being…1) The best predictor of a region’s relative income in a period is its income in the years prior. A perfect predictor of the relative ranking of regional prosperity in 2000 is the ranking in 1800. If one considers income further back in time (e.g., 1500), one finds that it is still a very good indicator, although not a perfect one.” [Science]

Should Well-Being Be the Goal of Government?

The current pandemic has raised questions about the role, purpose, and capabilities of governments around the world—particularly as some have been better at ensuring the safety and health of their citizens than others. A pandemic makes for a unique backdrop to read this article, which argues that policymakers should “set wellbeing at the heart of decision-making” and outlines the ways that could happen in practice. “Measures of wellbeing are not yet routinely used to evaluate national policy, nor how our children are doing in school or whether a local housing policy is successful,” the authors write, with the United Kingdom in mind. “There is still a long tail of workplaces with both low wellbeing and low productivity that show little sign of improving practices.” [Main article: Behavioural Public Policy; and a follow-up response from the authors]

BONUS: Behavioural and Social Sciences at Nature Research

As someone who spends a lot of their time collecting and reviewing different behavioral science resources, I am always delighted when I find a new one. But I’m surprised too, and a touch miffed—how did I not know about that already?! (Is there a German word for the combination of surprise, delight, and slight annoyance?) A recent resource I came across at Nature’s website curates social and behavioral science research across its journals and pulls back the curtain on the research process, including authors sharing their “behind the paper” experiences and updates from Nature’s editors. [Behavioural and Social Sciences at Nature Research]