In recent years, behavioral sciences, or ways to better understand determinants of human behavior, have emerged as a leading innovation across disciplines and sectors. These novel methods and data allow us to measure what incentivizes individual and group behavior to inform numerous interventions (e.g., targeted online marketing, campaigns for healthier eating, improved educational pedagogy, enhanced community policing protocols, effective policy design for compliance with public health ordinances or paying taxes). The list is endless, as are the potential applications.
This wide range of potential coverage is why it can be particularly challenging to train individuals to work in the behavioral sciences. What do we reference? What fields do we focus on? How do we avoid the WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich developed) problem? Trying to find answers to these questions in 2020 led to a first of its kind interdisciplinary course by MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) and the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics. The course aims to train early career scholars from the U.S. and local universities in East Africa in cutting-edge behavioral science research. It is conducted in Kenya and structured as an intensive deep dive into interdisciplinary behavioral science, providing students the opportunity to develop and implement novel behavioral science games. (More on the motivation behind the course in WZB Magazine)
As part of the course, participants developed a research question for a Kenyan context and designed behavioral games that could be used to study their research question (course syllabus available online). As expected, the research questions covered a diverse array of topics. In this collection of blog posts, the students share their experience piloting their game designs, discussing their research question in focus groups, and working in the field.
George Kinyanjui (University of Capetown) is exploring the common practice of donating money to people who need to pay for medical expenses. Even though paying for health insurance would be cheaper than paying medical bills out-of-pocket, most Kenyans rely on this informal support network — fewer than 20% of Kenyans have health insurance. Kinyanjui is interested in what motivates people to pay others’ medical expenses. Kim Fre Cramer (Columbia University) is also studying informal systems for exchanging money in order to pay expenses, sitting in on a meeting where women collect and loan money to group members with urgent expenses. She is looking at why someone might prefer to take such a loan rather than dip into their personal savings.**
Farming is the primary source of income for most Kenyans, and several students were interested in how farmers make decisions. Peter Babyenda (University of Nairobi) wonders if providing farmers with information on climate change could encourage them to adopt strategies as a way of adapting to changes in climate such as irrigation. John Shilinde (University of Dar es Salaam) is examining whether farmers prefer to trade with people who speak the same language and are of the same ethnicity. Marius Vollberg (Harvard University) is interested in whether some people care more about retaining free choice than making optimal decisions. He designed a virtual farming game in which people could either pay a fee to make their own decisions for allocating crops, or follow someone else’s advice for free, to see if people would be willing to pay to retain their freedom of choice.
Most Kenyans have mobile wallets that allow them to virtually send and receive money. But many people don’t trust the agents working for the mobile money companies, who exchange cash for mobile credits and vice versa. On occasion, some people are scammed by dishonest agents. Isabel Macdonald (Harvard University) hypothesizes that sharing anonymous custom ratings could lead to fewer scams and more trust in agents. Mobile money’s accessibility has also led to an increase in gambling in the country. Laura Barasa (University of Nairobi) is investigating if warnings about how gambling can be addicting in social settings could limit gambling.
Richard Sebaggala (Uganda Christian University) also wants to see if information can be used to curb behavior. He is looking at whether emotionally-charged messaging showing the consequences of corruption can lead to less corrupt behavior. Many Kenyans view politicians as being corrupt. But incumbent politicians still often win re-election, even when they’ve performed poorly. Stuart Russell and Nicole Wilson (MIT) think that this is because voters tend to hold on to prior beliefs, such as support for a candidate from their party, and discount contradictory information, like evidence that a politician is corrupt.**
Lynda Nakawala (Makerere University in Uganda) is interested if people can be motivated to think more critically. She is designing an experiment where people receive a message touting the benefits of critical thinking and are given a small amount of money. Then, they can either play a puzzle game or return some of the money and skip the game. Nakawala wonders if the motivational messaging will increase people’s willingness to expend cognitive energy and play the game. Aidan Milliff (MIT) is more interested in measuring people’s behavior than trying to change it. He’s curious about how people behave in life threatening situations. Milliff is using a video game to stimulate an emotional response in study participants, then talking participants through scenarios where they encounter violence and asking them questions about how they would handle it.
The questions and experiences captured in the blog book range in area of interest, further cementing the endless potential behavioral science and its application offers.
The Behavioral Science in the Field course was piloted in January 2020 and data collection was delayed until May 2022 due to the pandemic. As a result, some games (note by **) were not fielded due to changes in research priorities of the participants
Header: Micheal Bagorogoza.