Five behavioral science stories worth remembering from 2012

  • By Katie DeWitt
  • December 17, 2012

Behavioral science was big in 2012. From shaping this year’s election season to reminding people to schedule dental check-ups, organizations across sectors are applying the psychology behind behavior change in innovative ways.

Here’s a look back at a few of the most interesting examples of behavioral science in action this year:

1. It got out the vote

Groups from across the political spectrum used social pressure to encourage higher voter turnout on Election Day, building on the idea that citizens are more likely to vote if they know their neighbors are voting. The scientific basis for this strategy dates back to a large-scale field experiment conducted during the 2006 elections in Michigan. And a 2012 academic paper describes a groundbreaking Facebook experiment involving 61 million users, which found that people who received a banner message encouraging them to vote and showing them which of their friends had voted were more likely to head to the polls than any other group.

In advance of this November’s election, political groups put these insights into practice, by mailing out tens of millions of “Voter Report Cards” that compared each recipient’s historical voting record with their neighborhood’s average turnout rate.

2. It helped people save money

Publicly committing to a savings goal may be a more powerful incentive to put more money in the bank than getting a higher interest rate. A randomized field experiment evaluated the savings behavior of Chilean bank customers who received a 0.3% interest rate, versus those who received a 5% interest rate. The 0.3% interest rate customers were, unlike the 5% rate customers, encouraged to publicly announce their goals for how much they aspired to save.

In the end, the low interest-rate customers made 3.5 times as many deposits and saved almost twice as much money as the high interest-rate group. The outcome reinforces the idea that social incentives can be more powerful than monetary ones.

3. It made solar panels popular

study based on a decade of California data found that rooftop solar panels are contagious within neighborhoods. For every extra 10 roofs with solar panels within a given zip code, the probability that an additional household installed panels increased by 7.8%. Keeping up with the Joneses just got greener.

4. More people showed up at the gym

A company called GymPact – which allows people to bet on their ability to work out at the gym (or run/walk) a certain number of days per week – reported that 86% of people who enroll in their program end up doing the workouts they commit to.

How it works: If you slack off and miss a workout, you get penalized (e.g. your credit card is charged $5). But if you meet your gym-going goal, then GymPact pays you a small prize. Underlying the GymPact motivational model is a key principle in behavioral economics, called “loss aversion,” which says that people hate losing something even more than they like winning it.

5. More people even showed up at the dentist

A group of German dentists found that patients who received simple check-up “reminders” were more than twice as likely to schedule a check-up as those who did not. This outcome suggests that well-timed reminders, or “prompts,” are some of the most simple and cost-effective ways to promote positive behavioral changes.

We look forward to reporting on the newest developments in behavioral science in the coming year, as the discipline continues to make waves across the globe.

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