Erez Yoeli, research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management
David Rand, Associate Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT Sloan School of Management
Nancy had been coughing for months. When she started experiencing chest pain, this bubbly mother of three and very proud grandmother went to see a doctor at her local clinic in Thika, about 20 miles northeast of Nairobi. He delivered a crushing diagnosis: She had contracted a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis. That was in June 2016.
For the next eight months, Nancy went to the clinic daily to receive an injection of a strong antibiotic and take a cocktail of 15 pills that were also antibiotics. She became so weakened by the disease and her medications that she couldn’t walk. Her children carried her to the clinic for her daily visits and provided constant support and encouragement, but she still felt she was alone — she wasn’t working, and her friends avoided her out of fear of being infected by the disease.
Nancy is one of roughly 10 million people worldwide who develop tuberculosis each year. Once on the decline, TB has again become the world’s deadliest infectious disease, killing nearly 2 million people a year, more than malaria and HIV combined.
The cause of TB’s resurgence is not medical; a highly effective though burdensome treatment has existed for the disease since the mid-1940s. Instead, the cause is mostly behavioral: Faced with the prospect of extended treatment and isolating stigma, many people are slow to seek treatment or quit partway through. This fuels the tuberculosis epidemic by giving the disease ample opportunities to spread and mutate into drug-resistant strains like the one that infected Nancy.
If the fuel is behavioral, then the solution should be as well.
Tim Kraft, Visiting Assistant Professor of Operations Management
Karen Zheng, Associate Professor of Operations Management
Do consumers place a monetary value on supply-chain visibility? Are they willing to pay more for a product that is “socially responsible”?
A new study led by two professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management suggests that the answer is yes – at least to a point. Tim Kraft, visiting assistant professor of operations management, and Karen Zheng, associate professor of operations management, set up a “behavioral lab” that mimicked the dynamics of a real-world supply chain. It consisted of a three-player game, with participants playing the roles of consumer, seller and worker.
The experiment examined whether a consumer is willing to pay more for a given product if the seller provides visibility into its treatment of factory workers. The decisions of all players directly impacted their ultimate payments. So how much of a premium did the “consumers” agree to pay for products of the socially responsible “seller”? How did their actions affect the lot of the “worker”? And can a limited experiment of this type really mirror behavior in the real world?
Both social scientists and policy makers have long puzzled over a basic question: Why do humans so often refuse to act in their own best interests? This ranges from behavior as simple as snacking on chips when we all know fruit is healthier to spending money on extravagant luxuries when we should be saving for retirement.
The answer is that our choices are shaped by both non-conscious processes and the social influences that shape our behavior. “Behavioral science” seeks to unpack these influences and can discover ways to encourage good economic decisions, healthy lifestyles and other beneficial habits. So I, as a behavioral scientist, was heartened to see the Obama administration issue an executive order in September 2015 calling for incorporating behavioral insights into federal policies and programs.
Behavioral science is kind of “cool” right now (cool, for academia anyway). There has been a great deal of mainstream attention paid to behavioral science recently, notably in books like Freakonomics and Predictably- Irrational to columns like New York Magazine’s The Science of Us, and television shows like National Geographic’s “Brain Games,” and various Ted Talks. There’s also increased attention on how behavioral science can move beyond the laboratory, with its interesting, quirky cool studies, to really be used as a tool to help shape behavior and policy. Thus, Obama’s creation of a behavioral science team within the White House could really give a boost to cross pollination between academics and policymakers that could result in public policy that would encourage healthier, more fulfilling lives. This could range from encouraging people to enroll in thrift plans, pay fines that hang over their heads, eat low-fat diets, or get out to vote.
Unfortunately, there has been a chasm between the kinds of tools that we use in academia and the policies needed in the real world. Most people outside of academia do not read the arcane articles in academic journals. But we have some great and interesting ideas percolating in campus “laboratories” that we need to share with budget-strapped policymakers dealing with real-world issues.