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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




We Could All Use a Little Nudge 

January 14, 2014 — By Helena Choi

A new year seems like a good time for a fresh start. This is probably why so many of us make resolutions this time of year to eat healthier, exercise more, spend more time with family and friends. A recent article in the New York Times suggests that behavioral economics can help us stick to these resolutions.  

Behavioral economics is gaining attention these days. From individuals to workplaces to government agencies, behavioral economics is being embraced as a way to steer us to make better choices. Perhaps mainstream books like Nudge and Thinking Fast and Slow have popularized the discipline. The idea that people aren’t rational beings who do the right thing all the time certainly resonates with our sense of reality and our own recognition that good intentions don’t always lead to positive action. 

While refreshing the Hewlett Foundation’s grantmaking strategy for its International Population and Reproductive Health portfolio last year, we honed in on behavioral economics as a possible tool for improving family planning services in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, if a woman’s contraceptive choices are heavily influenced by her peers, family planning counselors could propose first the birth control methods most likely used by her age cohort. If an unintended pregnancy is a future risk that seems disproportionately low compared to current consumption needs, there might be a way to make the trade-off seem more balanced. 

The Foundation’s Global Development and Population Program has made two grants so far to help us test out some of these ideas. The Center for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley has awarded pilot grants to behavioral economists to include behavioral components to ongoing research, and plans to help researchers team up with implementing organizations to design joint projects. The other grantee, ideas42, is also planning to work with service delivery organizations to identify some behavioral problems that could be addressed with a tweak or a different approach to the way services are currently provided. 

Moreover, a panel discussion on behavioral economics at the recent International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa generated both enthusiasm and dialogue.   

It’s too soon to tell if behavioral economics can help a young woman in Uganda avoid an unintended pregnancy, or help a mother in Senegal better space her children. But the enthusiasm from both behavioral economists and service providers about working together to test out its potential is encouraging. We hope these partnerships will result in innovation that makes people’s lives measurably better—if I can borrow from the Foundation’s tagline.   

As for my personal New Year’s resolution, it’s something I might actually be able to keep: to embrace imperfection. With a new baby in the house, this means living with a bit of a mess and outsourcing cooking more. It’s interesting to think about the kind of behavioral nudges that will make me stick with this.