Many human services programs are designed such that individuals must make a series of decisions and take a number of active steps in order to realize a benefit. From deciding which programs to apply for, to completing forms, attending meetings, showing proof of eligibility, and arranging travel and child care, program designers often assume that individuals make decisions about how to proceed based on careful consideration of their options and best interests. But over the past 30 years, innovative behavioral science research has demonstrated that human decision-making is often imperfect and imprecise. People — clients and program administrators alike — procrastinate, get overwhelmed by choices, miss details, are prone to distraction, rely on mental shortcuts, and are influenced by even minor changes in the environment. As a result, both program operators and participants may not always achieve their intended goals, hindering the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs.
Insights from behavioral economics, which combines findings from psychology and economics, and from the broader field of behavioral science, suggest that a deeper understanding of decision-making and behavior could improve human services program design and outcomes. Principles from behavioral science can both shed light on decision-making and offer new tools to improve outcomes for program participants. Small changes in the environment can facilitate desired behaviors; planning and commitment devices can be used to improve follow-through; and default rules can produce positive outcomes even for people who fail to act.
In 2010, OPRE launched the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, the first major effort to view programs for low-income U.S. families, including working poor families, through a behavioral science lens. In 2015, OPRE launched two additional behavioral science projects — BIAS Capstone (concluded in 2018) and BIAS Next Generation (ongoing) — in order to synthesize, disseminate, and build on BIAS’s applied behavioral science work. In 2017, OPRE launched the Behavioral Interventions Scholars grant program, which supports dissertation research by advanced graduate students who are applying a behavioral science lens to research questions with relevance to social services programs and policies and other issues facing low-income and vulnerable families in the United States.
Point(s) of contact: Kim Clum and Victoria Kabak.