Panel Paper: Understanding the “Human” in Human Services: Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) Project Insights

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 10:25 AM
Mayfair Court (Westin Georgetown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, Nadine Dechausay and Peter Baird, MDRC
Innovative research in behavioral science has demonstrated that human decision-making is frequently imperfect and imprecise. We procrastinate, get overwhelmed by choices, lose our self-control and permit small changes in our environment to influence our decisions. However, many programs are designed with the implicit assumption that clients and staff will carefully consider options, analyze details, and make decisions that maximize their well-being. Often, people are required to undertake a host of specific activities—from completing forms and showing proof of eligibility to arranging transportation and child care—to keep their benefits or continue program participation. As a result of imperfect decision-making, desired goals may not always be achieved. Theories of human decision-making offer a ground-breaking opportunity to better understand the forces and situations that influence decision-making, which ultimately affect the benefits and services received from social programs.  Emerging research in the behavioral sciences has found that minor details, such as the presence of a default condition, can have significant effects on altering behavior and individual outcomes. Yet, despite the promise such approaches have for improving the effectiveness of public social programs, scant attention has been paid by program operators, social welfare academic researchers, and evaluators to behavioral improvements and the opportunities to increase the effectiveness of social programs through approaches grounded in behavioral theory. The purpose of the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, sponsored by ACF, is to explore the application of behavioral science principles to ACF programs and target populations.  The project accomplishes this task through behavioral mapping. The goal of behavioral mapping is to understand the program’s process, identify possible bottlenecks, and develop behavioral interventions geared to tackle one or more of the identified bottlenecks. This presentation will discuss the dynamic process at the core of behavioral mapping, which seeks to understand not only how processes are intended to work, but also how such processes may foster unintended behavioral bottlenecks that impede programmatic success. Behavioral mapping helps to uncover some facets of the “Black Box,” while increasing the likelihood that an evaluation will detect positive impacts. Using examples from work in the area of child support, the presentation will demonstrate how to identify behavioral bottlenecks, connect those bottlenecks to their potential underlying psychologies, and design low-cost behavioral interventions to address both.