Interview with Dr. Susan Mayer

Dr. Susan E. Mayer is a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School Of Public Policy and the co-founder of the Behavioral Insights and Parenting (BIP) Lab.

Dr. Mayer holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. She has published several papers studying the effect of parental income or neighborhood affluence on children’s wellbeing. Her current research focuses on the use of behavioral science insights in designing practical and scalable interventions (leveraging technology whenever possible) to support parents’ engagement in their children’s development.

In her discussion with the Ideation Center, Dr. Mayer explained the process of developing behavioral interventions and the rationale behind this “low-cost, light-touch” way of influencing behavior.

Can you tell us briefly about the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab at the University of Chicago?

The Behavioral Insights and Parenting (BIP) Lab studies how behavioral tools can be used to increase parental investments in their children's success. The BIP was created with the premise that behaviorally informed tools may be a “low-cost, light-touch” way to support optimal parent engagement in their children’s development, particularly in economically disadvantaged households.

What is distinct about the behavioral science approach?

The behavioral science approach tries to help people overcome common cognitive biases that prevent people from doing the things that they want to do – like raise happy and productive children. We do this through incorporating a broad range of insights from economics, psychology, and sociology. Cognitive biases exist everywhere but they can vary in degree. They are distinct from problems related to lack of access to information, lack of means, personal beliefs, or structural enablers. We then use these insights to design interventions using simple tools that shift people’s behaviors. The beauty of behavioral intervention tools is that they do not dictate what people should do. It is up to people to want to make the change.

Can you explain the process of implementing behavioral interventions?

The process starts with problem identification: we work with schools and local agencies to identify parenting-related problems that can be potentially solved through behavioral interventions. We need to understand the problem well and figure out the drivers behind it. If the causes of the problems are not behavioral in nature, then behavioral interventions cannot solve it.

Once we understand the nature of the problem and identify the cognitive biases behind it, we design the adequate interventions to address it. We start by implementing pilot interventions to test people’s responsiveness and determine the validity of the tools we selected. After this, we can scale up our interventions. All the while, we ensure a continuous monitoring of the process and adjust the intervention as we go to improve their effectiveness.

Throughout the process, research is key — at the University of Chicago, we have a large research team specialized in behavioral science. The team works to identify problems and is responsible for understanding people’s responses to interventions.

Partnerships are very important, especially when we want to change behaviors on a large scale. The BIP works with local organizations to scale up our interventions.

How are the teams organized?

The size of the teams varies based on interventions; as such, the core team is always small — I would say between five and eight employees. Then, through the course of interventions, the Lab brings on more members to get the job done. In general, we might have 10, 20 and sometimes more researchers in the implementation of interventions.

What type of challenges can be encountered during the implementation of behavioral interventions?

Our main challenge at the BIP is finding the best ways to engage parents of preschoolers. This is not always straightforward and it can lead to very sensitive issues. For example, parents, like everyone else, are “present biased,” which leads to procrastination in doing the things parents themselves want to do for their children. To overcome this cognitive bias, we ask parents to set goals for the things they would like to do, like reading to their child every day. Then we use reminders, social rewards and other, behavioral tools to help them meet the goal.

What are your main recommendations for GCC governments to implement behavioral interventions?

It is best to start small and focus on one problem at a time. The main behavioral insights team can be lean, but they need to work with experts and researchers with experience in identifying cognitive barriers and in designing programs to overcome the barriers on a project basis.

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