Changing behavior – when, how and how much? Comments on an article on the Gates Foundation-Blog (2013)



This sounds like an interesting example. If I understand correctly, the idea is to stimulate farmers to “pay it forward” by giving some of their proceeds to other farmers. My question here is: why? Why not stick to giving them beans, help them to grow them successfully and spread the program?

It seems that the underlying assumption is that since they have received help, they should also help others. They should reciprocate. And the assumption is that it is not enough to redistribute this newly earned wealth within their own social environment. But reciprocation is only valid when some of the beans (assumption: they got beans, they give beans to others) should be redistributed among the other farmers.

Some problems – do you really want them?

1. Redistribution of wealth:
As they may all not be very rich (and even then people underreport…), it seems very natural to want to save something for themselves. Let’s not even start hypothesizing what social and other factors may come into play when you effectively are redistributing wealth to these other farmers (who might be friends, enemies, competitors etc.). Because it seems that this is exactly what you are doing here.

2. Linking proceeds with “paying forward” incentivizes cheating:
The amount of what they donate is linked to the proceeds they generate. And of course they underreport. In a way, the whole idea incentivizes cheating as a behavior.

3. Compliance costs resources:
There is a “compliance problem”, because you have to spend money on resources to control the adequate reporting of the farmers proceeds. So in a next step you could try and look for a simple metric which is independent of the individual success of the harvest, but more general and easily computed. So people don’t have to cheat. But then you still have the problem of administering etc. So essentially the problem doesn’t go away.

A simple heuristic could be “Give back the beans you received”. In bad years that might be too much, in good years too little. The question is more: does the amount of beans they give back really matter that much?

4. “Nudging” makes it more complicated:
What to do then? HarvestPlus then looks for a way to “nudge” them into doing this. In order to “motivate” them to donate one way of doing this is by means of a lottery in advance and a ceremony. So in essence you make a very “simple” thing (donating beans to farmers) more and more complicated. As much as I like behavioral change strategies, is this really the best option?

So starting from simple “linked” assumptions (“paying forward” with “with beans” & “to other farmers”) we end up with something which gets more and more complicated.

Let’s get back to the starting question:

Why wouldn’t we want the farmers to decide themselves what they want to do with their crop? So they can “pay forward” to their own best interest. We might even encourage them to save, so they have some resources when times get rough. There wouldn’t be any compliance issues. No cheating.

If we apply this to ourselves – and walk a mile in their shoes – how would we feel?

Imagine having received a “free” job training (or just your education) in the US, which asks you to donate to others after you have succesfully reentered the job market (depending on your selfreported income). How does that sound?

That puts you into a rather difficult position. Wouldn’t you rather be taxed directly, so the state does the redistribution? Or would you prefer to be asked to contribute in another way? Maybe educate others, so they can make more “educated choices” and modulate the behavior of their most successful peers? Might that not be a more important goal than being “forced” to pay forward to people you didn’t choose?

What do you think? Am I missing something here? What mistakes did I make? I look forward to the discussion!

(This comment was partly inspired by a conversation with Gerd Gigerenzer at TEDx Zurich about educating people to make informed choices. Any mistakes are all mine.)

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