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Behavioral Insights Briefs

The Center for Behavioral & Experimental Agri-Environmental Research (CBEAR) was established in 2014, funded through competitive grants from the USDA Economic Research Service (2014-2019) and from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (2019-2023).

CBEAR works with program administrators at the USDA and its partners to incorporate behavioral insights into program designs. CBEAR has twice been named a USDA Center of Excellence.

Insight Briefs

The Power of Defaults: Are your programs defaults helping or hurting?

Humans are prone to inertia. We tend to prefer to stick to the status quo. This tendency can have profound effects. For example, with retirement savings plans, research shows that the default option for new employees matters a lot. In standard plans, employees have to take action to enroll (opt-in). An alternative is automatic enrollment, where employees have to opt-out if they do not wish to participate. Participation is much higher with auto-enrollment.

The Pull of Social Comparisons: People look to what others are doing as a guide for their own behavior.

In 2007, an experiment with more than 100,000 households in Georgia shed light on how to inexpensively encourage people to voluntarily reduce their water use during droughts. One group of households received only information on how to reduce water use. Another group also received a personalized letter asking them to reduce their water use (moral suasion). A third group also received information in their letter on how their water use compared with other households in their county (social comparison). A fourth group received no message and served as a comparison group.

The Costs of Complexity: The most sophisticated programs are the simplest.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides tax credits to low-income workers, up to about one month’s income. Despite the credit’s substantial benefits, about one in four eligible individuals fail to file for the EITC each year, leaving tens of millions of dollars in benefits unclaimed. Why? Scholars hypothesize that one important reason is the complexity of filing.

Climate Change Mitigation Outreach Experiment: Should climate change programs mention climate change?

This project sought to provide evidence that could inform three important questions about how USDA could best communicate with farmers. First, it sought to address the question of whether outreach materials should focus solely on historically-emphasized benefits like “soil health” and “local water quality” or whether these materials should also explicitly link farm practices to GHGs and climate change. In other words, could USDA spur new on-farm activities that contribute to the Building Blocks goals by discussing climate change or would this language turn farmers off? Second, whether too many options for action in a single outreach message depress producer interest in taking any action. Third, the project sought to develop evidence about whether, after multiple mail contacts, a personal follow-up phone call can be a cost-effective means to encourage farmers on histosols to learn more about USDA conservation programs.

Gains from Avoiding Losses: It’s not just how much incentive you offer, but how you offer it.

A manufacturing company discovered that how it framed its performance bonus to teams of workers affected the teams’ output.1 All teams worked under the same bonus system, but some teams saw the system presented in a “gain frame” and others saw it presented in a “loss frame.” The gain-frame teams were told that they would earn a bonus for each week they met a performance benchmark, up to an annual maximum payment. In contrast, the loss-frame teams were told that they would receive the maximum payment, but their payment would be reduced for each week the team did not meet the benchmark. The teams who saw the loss frame produced more output, on average, than the teams who saw the gain frame (see figure).

Test, Learn, Adapt: Innovate by running experiments in your programs.

In business, health, public policy, and nearly every other field, people want to know how actions impact outcomes. Do farmers obtain higher yields using fertilizer A or fertilizer B? Do patients live longer taking pill A or pill B? How much more money do workers earn if they study high school curriculum A relative to curriculum B? The answer is well-known: run an experiment in which you randomly assign farm plots to fertilizer A or B.

Labeling Success: People’s behaviors are motivated by labels. Labeling environmental practices used in food production can lead to higher consumer satisfaction, producer profits, and improved environmental outcomes. Could your program use labels to be more successful?

Walk around any grocery store. Everywhere you can see efforts to use labels to influence consumer behavior. Products are labeled with bright sale prices. Yogurt labels tout nutritional benefits. Bacon is labeled as reduced fat. Fresh fruits and vegetables have an entire section labeled as organic. The distance between the consumer and producer in today’s global food system poses obstacles for effective communication and the establishment of trust. Consumers cannot directly observe the food production process and its impacts on the environment, yet consumers are increasingly paying attention to the environmental impacts of their food.

Ag-E Mindspace: Use this framework to strengthen your agri-environmental program with behavioral insights.

In our budget-constrained world, we’re always looking for ways to make our voluntary programs more cost-effective. How can we design programs so that farmers and landowners want to participate and take actions to improve our environment? Providing economic incentives is one way that we can make these programs attractive, but other factors matter too (and sometimes matter more!). Behavioral scientists have identified simple, low-cost program modifications, frequently called “nudges,” that can improve program outcomes based on behavioral insights. We highlight the insights that are relevant to agri-environmental programs using the MINDSPACE framework, which was developed by behavioral scientists.

The Feral Hog Problem: Can A Cost-Share Program Help? 

Feral hogs are an invasive species in the United States that annually inflicts an estimated $1.5 billion in damages and control costs. Hogs damage crops, spread pathogens to livestock and humans, and destroy pastures, lawns, and fences. The damage also includes collisions with vehicles, as well as attacks on farmers and people recreating outside. As an invasive species, feral hogs also disrupt the dynamics of indigenous wildlife, decrease plant diversity, soil health, and water quality. Feral hog control is a spatial challenge. Hogs are intelligent, adaptable, and mobile. 

Recruiting Farmers: Low-Cost and Costly Ways to Increase Farmer Response Rates

How can we design recruitment approaches so that farmers and landowners want to participate in programs and surveys? In prior Behavioral Insight Briefs, we described how to design programs for maximum effectiveness (for example #8 – Ag-E MINDSPACE) and how to test new program designs (for example #6 – Test, Learn, Adapt). In this Brief, we address the first step of getting a program going: recruitment. Providing economic incentives for participation is an effective way to boost recruitment numbers. Yet other less expensive strategies can also be effective. CBEAR tested some of these strategies in a series of large-scale field experiments. Here, we describe the strategies that worked best, and the strategies that are best avoided.