Research Lead: Two Vaccine Megastudies, the Greta Effect, Psychology’s Global Blindspot, 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 I reserve vaccines for two, please?

A research team led by Katy Milkman recently conducted two megastudies testing dozens of different communication nudges on thousands of patients with the goal of boosting uptake of the flu vaccine. In the first megastudy, they delivered 19 nudges to over 47,000 patients from two large hospital systems via text message. The most successful nudge framed the flu shot as being “reserved” for the person. In the second megastudy, they delivered 22 text-message nudges to over 700,000 Walmart pharmacy patients, finding similarly that the most successful nudge framed the flu-shot as “waiting for you”.

Framing vaccines as reserved or waiting for an individual works by suggesting that a particular dose belongs to them and in failing to claim it, they’ll be losing something valuable. Researchers think these results can help encourage COVID-19 vaccinations at scale. If you’re curious to hear from the lead author of the studies, earlier this year we hosted an event with Katy Milkman about these megastudies and behavior change during COVID-19. [Megastudy 1, two large hospital systems: Social Science Research Network; Megastudy 2, Walmart: Social Science Research Network].

Can young people with bullhorns make a difference on big problems like climate change?  

Teenager Greta Thunberg is arguably one of the most famous climate activists in the world, known for things like her carbon-neutral boat trip across the Atlantic and the impassioned speech she made to world leaders at the World Economic Forum. But her celebrity has brought its fair share of criticism, with some arguing that her activism, while popular, isn’t making a meaningful difference for climate action. So which is it? According to a new study, familiarity with Thunberg is associated with higher intentions to take collective actions to reduce global warming, a phenomenon the researchers termed the “Greta Thunberg Effect.” The results suggest that prominent, young public figures can make an important impact on collective action problems.  [Journal of Applied Social Psychology

Accepting, not pathologizing, neurodiversity 

Neurodiversity is the idea that there is natural variation in mental functioning, and that this variation should be accepted instead of pathologized. A new piece argues that neurodiversity is ecologically important for our species. Neurodiverse people have strengths and skills not found in people who are neurotypical, and can fill important roles in society. Greta Thunberg, for example, has hypothesized that “her activism has been successful because of, rather than despite, her autistic social-cognitive style.” Embracing, accepting, and accommodating neurodiversity can help make us a more adaptable and successful society. [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

Diversifying police forces can help reduce violence against minority communities 

George Floyd’s death at the hands of police last summer set off a wave of renewed calls for urgent, widespread police reform. Critics and advocates noted that police forces tend to be much less diverse than the communities they served, leading many to wonder if diversifying the police could be one strategy to reduce violence. A case study in Chicago found evidence to support this proposal. Relative to white officers, researchers found that Black and Hispanic officers make fewer stops and arrests and use force less often, especially against Black civilians. Female officers (regardless of race) tend to use less force than male officers. Together, these findings suggest that diversity reforms can be one strategy to improve police treatment of minority communities. [Science]

Faced with the COVID-19 storm, tight cultures did a better job battening down the hatch 

Over the last year, it has been glaringly evident that some countries have done a much better job than others at controlling COVID-19. Some psychologists have pointed to differences in social norm adherence to explain the divergent responses, and new research provides compelling evidence that supports this explanation. Using the cultural tightness-looseness paradigm, researchers found that nations that tend to be culturally “loose” (i.e., countries with weaker norms and more permissiveness) had higher COVID case counts and higher death rates than countries with “tight” cultures. Based on these results, researchers argue that “tightening social norms might confer an evolutionary advantage in times of collective threat.” [The Lancet]

Groups cast social “shadows”—and the size of those shadows matter 

Why have issues like gay rights made political progress while others like immigration have found progress more elusive? While past research has pointed to variables like money and time spent advocating for the issue, a new study suggests another potential factor: the social penumbra—the number of individuals in the population who knows someone in a particular group. For example, 74 percent of the general population know someone who is gay, despite only three percent of the general population identifying as gay or lesbian. In contrast, data shows that six percent of people are struggling with their mortgage, but only 35 percent of respondents said they know someone with an underwater mortgage. Even though people who identify as gay are a smaller group, gay rights issues are more visible to the general public than mortgage issues because of the larger penumbra. Differences in penumbras of groups may explain why some issues are underrepresented in media and in policy reform, even though they affect large portions of the population: not enough people know about them. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

Sketch of the social penumbra (gray circles) of a group in the population (yellow circle). Source: PNAS
Core groups and their penumbra size. The area of the yellow circle indicates the group size, and the concentric circles show its estimated penumbra (the percentage of survey respondents who report knowing at least one family member, close friend, or other acquaintance in the group). The light gray concentric circle denotes the rest of the U.S. population that is not in the group’s penumbra (i.e., those who do not know a member in the core group). Source: PNAS

Scaling nudges doesn’t always yield results 

One of the big challenges of behavioral science is figuring out how to translate successful interventions across different scales and contexts. In one new study, researchers tried to scale up interventions aimed at getting students to apply for financial aid, a program that had shown success in smaller studies. Through one nationwide and one statewide campaign, the researchers reached over 800,000 students—but none of the approaches (including message framing, delivery, timing, and one-on-one advising) had a measurable impact on aid receipt or college enrollment, providing additional evidence that scaling nudges isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. The study’s authors pointed out that there are two main ways that nudge interventions can be scaled—by partnering with one or two big organizations or with a lot of small organizations. In this case, they did the former approach. While partnering with several smaller, local organizations is more time- and resource-intensive, it might be the more effective way to scale interventions. [Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization]

Nudge vaccinators, not just those who need to be vaccinated 

Most vaccine interventions focus on people on the receiving end, but results from a case study in Pakistan suggest that it might help to focus our behavior-change efforts on those giving the dose as well. In Lahore, Pakistan, health care workers provide oral polio vaccinations door-to-door during vaccination drives. Although the workers were given vaccine targets, they were compensated the same regardless of how many vaccines they administered. Through a partnership with the Department of Health, researchers found that providing performance-based incentives for health care workers giving polio vaccines led to greater vaccination rates overall. While most vaccines aren’t given door-to-door, perhaps providing target-based incentives for organizations in charge of giving vaccines could be one way to boost vaccination rates. [Poverty Action Lab]

Psychology’s global blindspot 

Back in 2008, a psychologist combed through the most prominent psychology journals and found that over 70 percent of their samples and authors were focused on the U.S. (which makes up only 5 percent of the global population). This prompted the question, How can psychologists trust that these findings generalize if the evidence is based on such a small and unrepresentative population? Scholars recently revisited the same journals and found that not a lot of progress has been made: authors and samples from the U.S. now make up around 60 percent of the publications, and this change is driven by an increase in representation by Western European countries. These results suggest that psychology, on the whole, continues to overlook the vast majority of the world’s population, and that the discipline “still has a long way to go to become a science truly representative of human beings.” [American Psychologist; open access]

Objectification is rampant in the workplace, and that’s a bad thing

How many friends do you have at work? If you have any, you’re the minority: only 30 percent of people report having any friends in the workplace. This may stem from objectification in the workplace, which new research suggests is much more prevalent at work than in nonwork contexts. Across multiple studies, researchers found that participants objectified individuals significantly more when settings, events, and tasks were framed as work-related in comparison to nonwork contexts. Objectification at work has several negative consequences, including decreased job satisfaction and increased hostility and bullying. Reframing the workplace from where being calculating gets you ahead to one where others are viewed more like the people they are can help workers thrive. [Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; open access]