Many social programs are designed such that individuals must make active decisions and go through a series of steps in order to benefit from them — from deciding which programs to apply to or participate in, to completing forms, attending meetings, showing proof of eligibility, and arranging travel and child care. Program designers often implicitly assume that individuals will carefully consider options, analyze details, and make decisions that maximize their well-being. But over the past thirty years, innovative research — much of it in the area of “behavioral science” — has shown that human decision making is often imperfect and imprecise. People — clients and program administrators alike — procrastinate, get overwhelmed by choices, miss details, lose their self-control, rely on mental shortcuts, and permit small changes in their environment to influence their decisions. As a result, both programs and participants may not always achieve the goals they set out for themselves.
Research in behavioral science can both shed light on decision-making and offer potential new tools to improve outcomes for program participants. Small changes in the environment can facilitate certain behaviors, tools can be used to improve self-control, and default rules can influence what outcomes result when no action is taken at all. In other arenas, behavioral principles have been used with great effect to increase participation in 401(k) programs and increase organ donation, among other results.
The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is the first major opportunity to apply a behavioral research lens to programs that serve poor families in the United States — programs like cash assistance, child care, child support, and child welfare. The project, led by MDRC in partnership with behavioral science experts across the United States, will apply behavioral insights to issues related to operations, implementation, structure, and efficacy of social service programs and policies. The ultimate goal is to learn how tools from behavioral science can be used to improve the well-being of low-income children, adults, and families.