Using Behavioral Insights to Increase Parental Engagement

WDR 2015 IpadIt’s cute the way interventions in policy to influence people’s behaviour is called “using behavioural insights”. You could also call it commonsensically influencing people’s behaviour based on the idea that they are not instantly, omnisciently optimising robots. Anyway, there you go. Whodda thunk? Sending parents text reminders, setting goals and providing social rewards influences their behaviour. Nice to see the impact is large though.


Parent engagement with their children plays an important role in children’s eventual economic success and numerous studies have documented large gaps in parent engagement between low- and higher-income families. While we know remarkably little about what motivates parents to engage in their children’s development, recent research suggests that ignoring or discounting the future may inhibit parental investment, while certain behavioral tools may help offset this tendency. This paper reports results from a randomized field experiment designed to increase the time that parents of children in subsidized preschool programs spend reading to their children using an electronic reading application that audio and video records parents as they read. The treatment included three behavioral tools (text reminders, goal-setting, and social rewards) as well as information about the importance of reading to children. The treatment increased usage of the reading application by one standard deviation after the six-week intervention. Our evidence suggests that the large effect size is not accounted for by the information component of the intervention and that the treatment impact was much greater for parents who are more present-oriented than for parents who are less present-oriented.

By Susan E. Mayer, Ariel Kalil, Philip Oreopoulos, Sebastian Gallegos
Click here for NBER Working Paper No. 21602

Self-perpetuating discrimination

Discrimination and Worker Evaluation
by Costas Cavounidis, Kevin Lang – #21612 (LS)


We develop a model of self-sustaining discrimination in wages, coupled with higher unemployment and shorter employment duration among blacks. While white workers are hired and retained indefinitely without monitoring, black workers are monitored and fired if a negative signal is received. The fired workers, who return to the pool of job-seekers, lower the average productivity of black job-seekers, perpetuating the cycle of lower wages and discriminatory monitoring. Under suitable parameter values the model has two steady states, one corresponding to each population group. Discrimination can persist even if the productivity of blacks exceeds
that of whites.

Deeper into the spin zone

This observation is hardly a blindingly new insight, but it struck me that the video above is a kind of landmark. Google was the company that was information focused, engineering focused – and pretty good at user experience (UX) and all that stuff even if not up to Apple’s standard. As someone who’s just swithed from Nexus to iPhone and regretted it, I’d say it’s overtaken Apple at UX.

Anyway I wanted a quick lock on what the new Nexus has to offer. And arrived at this video. Fifty seconds. Fifty seconds of almost complete bullshit, albeit glossy bullshit and bullshit I might enjoy if I was on the other side of the Gruen Transfer and wasn’t trying to find stuff out.

Reunion blues

1B 1960

Last weekend I flew down to Sydney partly to attend the 50th anniversary party for the Class of ’65 from Harbord Primary School on the northern beaches. Many old school photos were exchanged, including the one above showing me (circled in red) at the age of seven.

The function was at Manly Bowls Club in the heart of Tony Abbott territory and the night went pretty much as I imagined it would.  Some of us have lived fairly happy and prosperous working lives, others less so, and a surprising number are dead.

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Ethnicity and occupation

I recall when I heard one of Australia’s senior economists – a Good Guy IMO - observed that Aboriginal people very rarely drive taxis. It would be easy to portray this as racist. It is racist in the sense that it’s making distinctions between people and generalisations about them based on race. The thing is, it rings true (though I’m happy to be disabused of my agreement with this particular generalisation if the evidence exists to do so).

Anyway, it does square with anecdotal experience that some ethnicities seem to correlate with certain jobs – which one presumes is driven by, amongst other things, ethnicities preferences, and perhaps the way in which those of a given ethnicity might attract others to the same profession, by virtue of affinity. Indians might not be particularly keen on taxi-driving in the first place, but once some Indians are driving taxis, other Indians fancy it. Anyway, I think it’s all quite interesting. And I wonder how much this might be imagined, and how much it’s real.

And then I came upon this article!

We study the relationship between ethnicity, occupational choice, and entrepreneurship. Immigrant groups in the United States cluster in specific business sectors. For example, Koreans are 34 times more likely than other immigrants to operate dry cleaners, and Gujarati-speaking Indians are 108 times more likely to manage motels.

Who knew that Gujarati-speaking Indians were 108 times more likely to manage motels? Not me.

Education Research and Administrative Data

Education Research and Administrative Data by David N. Figlio, Krzysztof Karbownik, Kjell G. Salvanes

Thanks to extraordinary and exponential improvements in data storage and computing capacities, it is now possible to collect, manage, and analyze data in magnitudes and in manners that would have been inconceivable just a short time ago. As the world has developed this remarkable capacity to store and analyze data, so have the world’s governments developed large-scale, comprehensive data files on tax programs, workforce information, benefit programs, health, and education. While these data are collected for purely administrative purposes, they represent remarkable new opportunities for expanding our knowledge. This chapter describes some of the benefits and challenges associated with the use of administrative data in education research. We also offer specific case studies of data that have been developed in both the Nordic countries and the United States, and offer an (incomplete) inventory of data sets used by social scientists to study education questions on every inhabited continent on earth.



[T]he great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. . .  A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, “is a completely fashioned will”.

William James, The Laws of Habit

“Taste” is a word and an idea that comes from another time. But I think it’s loss is a big deal. First there’s some good news about its demise. The idea of taste was freighted with class superiority. Good taste is typically taken to be associated with the upper and upper-middle classes. There’s also the idea of taste as setting some bounds on public discussion – which doesn’t have much going for it. So in some ways we’re good to be rid of it. But the upside of taste – the thing we’ve lost – is the idea of a desire that’s not a simple ‘preference’ but somehow an enlightened preference – and one that’s typically acquired. It’s an ability to see a little beyond simple appearances, to allow experience to speak of something deeper than appearances. An object in bad taste typically appeals to the untutored. Before megalomania overcame her, before she became a mega-star, Edna Everage’s schtick involved satirising bad taste by referring to the art-work she liked to have around. Ducks flying across the wall, a picture of Chinese girl with a beautiful green face. She would demonstrate her sense of taste by advising her audience “You can always tell an original. The eyes follow you all around the room”.


A Google n-graph of the use of the expression “good taste” at its height in 1930 and leading up to 1960 as you can see.

And here’s the thing. The death of taste as a cultural resource is killing us. Fast food tastes yummy. It’s scientifically optimised to allow you to mainline unmediated yumminess. When I was a kid and first encountered Kentucky Fried Chicken and then saw McDonalds restaurants I remember thinking that McDonalds would never beat Kentucky because Kentucky was so, so yummy – so rich as all that salt, sugar and oil and those secret herbs and spices made the chicken taste unbelievably good. My fish and chip shop just wasn’t close. Anyway, I was wrong. McDonalds, slightly less in-your-face yummy to my juvenile palate seems to have won that battle. Perhaps Maccas were optimising for my adult palate. Today I find the oiliness of KFC off-putting but I do wolf down a very occasional Maccas hamburger when travelling. I enjoy the utter accessibility of Macca’s scientifically optimised yumminess. It’s not hard to see how I could crave them – well I do crave them actually – but only very rarely.  Continue reading

How not to wedge an opponent – a beginner’s guide

clpadThe Northern Territory Country Liberals’ early start to election campaigning looks to be just as chaotic as the rest of its term of government. The last month of taxpayer-funded blatantly party political advertising doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact on voters, except perhaps to reinforce existing perceptions of blatant “snouts in the trough” behaviour. Of course Labor did pretty much the same thing when it was in government, but arguably not quite as blatantly.  The CLP advertising fairly clearly breaches section 6 of the Public Information Act, which is contravened by “information” which “promotes particular party political interests;  includes statements that are misleading or factually inaccurate; or does not clearly distinguish a statement of facts from a statement of comments.

Historically the Auditor-General hasn’t been especially diligent in finding breaches of the Act, but this morning’s effort may change that. Demonising Labor and the Independents for daring to deny urgency to a Bill that clearly wasn’t urgent, and listing the names of those MLAs alongside those of the CLP MLAs who supported urgency is just about as clear an example of promoting particular party political interests as it is possible to imagine.

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Ad hoc research anyone?

I have a reminder from a dentist to go see him so he can check his handiwork putting a cap on one of my teeth. From memory this took four visits and cost several thousand dollars. He seems like a good dentist. Anyway, I’m sure he’s following good practice in sending me the reminder. I’m not suspicious that he’s a nasty profiteering dentist – he’s an expensive one. But I’d like some independent and reasonably informed advice about the benefits of doing the checkup and the costs or risks of not doing so. There ought to be a website where I can pay a dental student to spend an hour or so if necessary checking out the literature and advising me.

I think I’ve made this observation at least once before on this blog in the last ten years. But I think I didn’t get anywhere that time. And I also think that perhaps now, in the age of platforms for everything, such a platform might exist now.

Can anyone tell me – and if so point me to it?