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Symposium 2015

Solution for How to Design Policies for Humans Rather than Homo Oeconomicus?

The Challenge

Most human thinking is automatic, not deliberative. It is based on what effortlessly comes to mind. Human thinking is also socially conditioned.  Beliefs about what others are doing and expecting sha ...

Most human thinking is automatic, not deliberative. It is based on what effortlessly comes to mind. Human thinking is also socially conditioned.  Beliefs about what others are doing and expecting shape an individual’s own preferences. And humans don’t face situations as “tabula rasa,” but instead interpret situations against the backdrop of their own understandings shaped by culture and existing social patterns.

Entertainment Media and Behavioral Change

While some development problems are extremely complex to solve, for others we have well documented and effective solutions, e.g., in the area of education, health, technology adoption, etc. Yet, despite the resources devoted by policy-makers and organizations to funding these solutions, success has been mixed. Take, for example, the case of HIV prevention in Sub-Saharan Africa. While many information and behavioral change campaigns have been launched, high risk sexual behavior is still widespread among the African youth. Why?

One possible answer is that the proposed message is difficult to understand. Information is sometimes provided in a way that is inadequate, especially in low-literacy contexts. Another possibility is that information is received and understood, but not acted upon, e.g., because the individual resists making a change that is in contrast with the prevailing social norms and with the behavior of other people.

The rapid spread of modern mass media in developing countries offers an opportunity to address the above limitations by exploiting (selected) desirable features of these media. One such feature is that mass media are increasingly reaching all segments of the population, even the less educated. Data from the Demographic and Health Surveys, for example, shows that the change in television ownership rates in Sub-Saharan Africa in the last two decades has been much steeper than the change in secondary education completion levels.

A second feature of television that makes it potentially valuable for the purpose of affecting behavior is that viewers typically spend a significant amount of time watching it. In the United States, the average number of hours spent in front of TV is 2.7 per day—that is approximately half of the leisure time that viewers report (Aguiar, Hurst, and Karabarbounis, 2013). This is essentially driven by demand for entertainment, more than by demand for information, so the possibility to channel useful information for policy purposes is naturally framed into the question of whether educational messages can be embedded in entertainment content.

Third, a fundamental feature of media such as television is their ability to reach an incredibly large number of viewers at the same time. This can prove extremely useful if one of the policy goals is that of improving coordination in collective action problems and changing the prevailing social norms.

The challenge at hand is therefore to leverage the advantages that modern mass media such as TV can offer, in order to complement traditional development policy and achieve desirable social and economic goals.

The Solution
A potential answer to this challenge is offered by the so called “educational entertainment”—or “edutainment”—solutions. This term refers to education programs that strategically employ media role models to promote socially desirable behaviors and dissuade socially undesirable ones.

The first examples of edutainment programs date back to the 1970s, when Latin American producers proposed soap operas with inspirational messages. The underlying rationale can be found in Albert Bandura’s theories of social learning and self-efficacy (e.g., Bandura, 1977). Media offers the possibility to learn from other people’s experience at no personal cost. At the same time, by presenting characters similar to the target audience who manage to achieve their goals, edutainment programs help viewers consider these objectives as feasible, and increase their motivations to act accordingly. Role modeling, identification and exemplification play a crucial role in making the process, by harnessing emotional connections and reinforcing the messages in the program.

While several actors are advocating the use of edutainment for development purposes, to date the evidence on its effects is mostly descriptive. Rigorous evidence is available on the effects of commercial TV on fertility (La Ferrara, Chong and Duryea, 2012; Kearney and Levine, 2014) and gender attitudes (Jensen and Oster, 2009), but these programs were not designed with specific educational purposes. On the other hand, soap operas that embed educational messages have been evaluated (e.g., Paluck, 2009; Berg and Zia, 2014) with positive impacts in the short run, but it is unclear how long lived these impacts are. It is crucial that more in depth evaluations of edutainment interventions are carried out, to understand the channels through which their impact is realized, and to assess the timeframe for the duration of these effects (e.g., how long should exposure to the message be? At what frequency?).

In assessing the possibility of using the media to change behavior, it should also be noted that media consumption involves both a “direct” and a “substitution” effect (DellaVigna and La Ferrara, 2015). The “direct” effect is related to the content of the media: if a positive message is embedded in a media program, the expected effect is that it should induce the viewer to adopt a desirable behavior. The “substitution” effect, on the other hand, operates through the viewer’s limited amount of time and resources: in watching television the individual takes time away from other activities. If these activities are more socially desirable, then the time spent in front of entertainment TV may be misallocated from a social viewpoint. If, however, the activities that are crowded out by television are “negative” (e.g., criminal behavior by individuals who instead choose to watch violent movies), then the substitution effect may be a gain for society at large.

Another important issue is the ethical dimension of edutainment. What limits should be placed on the use of media such as television for social purposes? While some educational content may be uncontroversial, other content may be manipulated to the point of bordering propaganda.
These are some of the issues that this session will discuss, to shed light on the use of psychological and behavioral theories within edutainment productions, and their complementarity with more traditional development policies.

Aguiar, M., Hurst, E., & Karabarbounis, L. (2013). Time use during the great recession. The American Economic Review 103(5): 1664–1696.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review 84(2): 191R.

Berg, G., and B. Zia (2014). Harnessing emotional connections to improve financial decision. In Matthias Lundberg and Florentina Mulaj (eds.), Enhancing Financial Capability and Behavior in Low- and Middle-Income Countries. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The World Bank, pp. 361.

DellaVigna, S., and E.L. Ferrara (2015). Economic and social impacts of the media (No. w21360). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Jensen, R., and E. Oster (2009). The power of TV: Cable television and women’s status in India. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 124(3): 1057–1094.

Kearney, M. S., and P.B. Levine (2014). Media influences on social outcomes: the impact of MTV’s 16 and pregnant on teen childbearing (No. w19795). National Bureau of Economic Research.

La Ferrara, E., A. Chong, and S. Duryea (2012). Soap operas and fertility: Evidence from Brazil. American Economic Journal, Applied Economics: 1–31.

Paluck, E.L. (2009). Reducing intergroup prejudice and conflict using the media: a field experiment in Rwanda. Journal of personality and social psychology 96(3): 574.

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