Anisha Singh, Director for Research and Innovation at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, has joined MIT GOV/LAB as a practitioner-in-residence from May to October. The residency provides partners with resources to develop new projects and space to reflect on and share their experiences in the field, which will enable MIT GOV/LAB to better ground its research in practice. 

In 2020, MIT GOV/LAB partnered with Busara, which is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, on a course for graduate students from U.S. and East Africa universities on conducting behavioral science research in the field. A lot of behavioral science research has taken place in western and industrialized places, so what are sometimes thought of as universal behavioral norms might not exist everywhere in the world. In conducting research in the global south, Busara works with local partners to ensure they’re gathering solid evidence for how people behave in under-studied areas. 

During her residency, Anisha will be codifying lessons from her experience conducting behavioral science research in the global south for Busara, as well as gathering learnings from other researchers and organizations, and she’ll share these findings on an open source microsite. 

Anisha and science writer Will Sullivan discussed the research she conducts at Busara and what her microsite will look like. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Anisha Singh. Credits: Busara Center for Behavioral Economics.

Will: Can you start by telling me a little bit about what you do at Busara and what sorts of problems you’re interested in working on? 

Anisha: Part of Busara’s mission is to advance and apply behavioral science, and I work on advancing behavioral science knowledge. A big part of my role is collaborating with academics to fill the gap that exists in what we actually know about the behavior of people in the global south. That involves running lab experiments and field experiments.

Sometimes subtleties in your research questions can get lost in translation. The words “irritable” and “upset” translate to the same word in Swahili. So if you’re testing different message frames for a health campaign, for example, you are not going to know whether it’s made your participants frustrated or sad. So there are these questions of how can we improve measurement, how can we improve how we conduct research.

Another thing I’m interested in is exploring gender differences in the workplace – things like why do women delegate less than men, and how can you equalize that a little more. People behave differently in different parts of the world. We’re finding a few differences between U.S. and Keynan samples in terms of who delegates and how much. These questions really haven’t been studied in the global south, where social norms are even more skewed between genders.

Will: What do you think is effective about Busara’s approach to gathering information and answering questions in the global south?

Anisha: We’re very context conscious. It’s not just the concepts that might not be the same, but also the way you would design a study has to be different. This is a really simple example, but in a lot of western countries, you could send someone an email to ask them to participate in a study. In Nairobi, for example, they don’t have email but they all have Facebook. Still, we need to make a phone call to each person to invite them to participate. We’re really conscious that these contextual differences play up at every stage. 

Will: In reading about your work, a couple of the themes that stood out to me were gathering inclusive data and ensuring that people from communities being studied are involved in every stage of the research. Can you speak to why those themes are important?

Anisha: Everyone wants to create evidence really quickly and conveniently. The easiest way is to overlook actual populations and go with what you know the best. There was this World Bank study in 2016 that shows that people who make decisions, even development professionals, always get it wrong in terms of how people actually behave. It’s important to work with communities because otherwise our own biases cloud what we’re going to do. 

Will: Earlier you mentioned running experiments. How do those work in practice, and could you share an example of one?

Anisha: We have a lab that looks like a university psychology lab. We look at a variety of questions from understanding mechanisms to applying behavioral insights. One example is looking at how we can help pregnant women take their iron and folic acid (IFA) supplement regularly. About half of pregnant women in India are anemic, and research suggests that pregnant and lactating women in India don’t adhere to the prescribed medication schedule. In collaboration with the Center for Social and Behavior Change in India, we tested different types of interventions that would make taking the IFA tablet “stick.” For example, we gave women calendars where they could peel off a sticker each day they took the tablet, revealing a happy baby face.

We test a variety of interventions for each of our questions so we can provide the most contextually appropriate and easy to implement solutions for our partners.

Will: Let’s talk a little about the microsite you’ll be working on at GOV/LAB. Can you tell me more about what that will look like and who it will be for?

Anisha: The purpose of the microsite is to make it easier to get better quality data and know what works before you go into the world and say “this is the new policy and everyone has to do it.”

The idea is to pull learnings from various people and organizations on applying behavioral science in the global south and put that all on an interactive microsite in the form of tutorials, videos, and stories.

I’m hoping one end-user will be NGOs, research organizations, or anyone who wants to go to a new setting and conduct experiments. I think the second audience is the larger government, policymakers, or funders who have people present findings to them – giving them guidance on either how to digest the study findings or commission good work. 


Image: Busara’s traveling lab-in-a-bus to reach pregnant women in India. Credits: Busara Center for Behavioral Economics.