The Power of Prompts: Using Behavioral Insights to Encourage People to Participate

September 16, 2015
Smaller photo of two women sharing home visiting data.

Photo of two women in an office.By Emily Schmitt, Senior Social Science Research Analyst, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation

On Sept. 15, the President issued an Executive Order Visit disclaimer page directing federal agencies to apply insights from behavioral science to improving programs and to rigorously evaluate the impacts of these insights, where possible. Here at ACF, we are doing just that. One recent effort examined how human services programs can use insights from behavioral economics to encourage people to participate.

Our new report examined whether behavioral interventions could increase participant attendance at an optional informational meeting for Paycheck Plus, an earnings supplement program in which participants had previously enrolled. The optional meetings gave clients an opportunity to review the program requirements and the incentives for working.

We tested two behavioral interventions to encourage people to participate— one that used behavioral messaging postcards and text message reminders, and one that made the meeting easier to attend.

The study found that:

  • Using behavioral messaging led to a significant and large increase in the percentage of participants who attended the meeting.
  • Sending text messages in addition to postcards was more effective than sending postcards only.
  • Offering the meeting over the phone instead of in person did not have any effect on the participation rate.

These findings demonstrate the promise of using behavioral insights in the design of marketing materials and that using text messages – a low cost communication tool – can be effective at reaching people.

The surprising finding that reducing the challenge of attending the meeting in person did not increase participation also reinforces the importance of testing to see what behavioral insights work in particular contexts.

This new research comes out of our Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project with MDRC Visit disclaimer page , the first major opportunity to apply behavioral economics to programs that serve poor and vulnerable families in the United States. BIAS works with state and local partner agencies to design and test behavioral interventions in human services programs. Previously published work from this project describes our collaboration with the Texas Office of the Attorney General´s Child Support Division on child support order modifications and with the Franklin County Child Support Enforcement Agency on increasing child support payments.

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