Behavioral Science and Decision Making in Context

The Russell Sage Foundation’s (RSF) core program on Behavioral Science and Decision Making in Context merges its long-standing program on Behavioral Economics and its special initiative on Decision Making and Human Behavior in Context. This program encourages perspectives from multiple disciplines, including economics, psychology, political science, sociology, law, public policy, and other social sciences, to further our understanding of economic, social, political, and psychological decision-making processes, attitudes, behaviors, and institutional practices in public and private contexts such as policing/criminal legal systems, employment, housing, politics, racial/ethnic relations, and immigration.

The term “behavior” is used in multiple ways across disciplines. Behavioral observation has long been used for psychological research on human behavior. Experimental psychologists conduct field and/or laboratory experiments to learn more about why people take certain actions. Behavioral economists focus on the decision-making processes of individuals and institutions. In political science, the subfield of political behavior focuses on attitudes. Sociologists study how human behavior is shaped by the groups to which people belong and by the social interactions that occur within those groups. Social scientists across these areas are increasingly proposing interventions in ongoing policies and programs to test the effectiveness of their theories and models. The foundation seeks applications from all of these perspectives regarding how they affect individual, group, and institutional behaviors and social structures.  

Research in this area is expanding rapidly. RSF is open to a range of questions consistent with its mission to “improve social and living conditions in the United States” and the funding priorities of its other core programs on Social, Political and Economic Inequality, Race, Ethnicity and Immigration, and Future of Work.

RSF priorities do not include analyses of health or mental health outcomes or health behaviors as these are priorities for other funders. For the same reason, RSF seldom supports studies focused on educational processes or curricular issues but does prioritize analyses of inequities in educational attainment or student performance. Limited consideration will be given to projects that test well-established behavioral effects without examining their context or underlying mechanisms. RSF does not fund studies using data from other countries unless they are part of a comparative project aimed at elucidating social and living conditions in the U.S. 

The kinds of topics and questions that are of interest include, but are not limited to, the following:

Biases and Misperceptions

An important contribution of behavioral science has been to analyze the extent to which biases (racial/ethnic, skin color, socioeconomic status, immigration status, political, etc.) affect attitudes and behaviors. RSF is interested in research examining the extent to which implicit and explicit biases and misperceptions affect attitudes and behaviors in employment, criminal, judicial, political, educational, and other settings, and the consequences of these actions. For example:

  • To what extent do biases affect judges’ decision making? To what extent have court decisions regarding issues of equity and fairness, including discrimination by sex, voter participation, electoral redistricting, and the racial composition of schools, affected educational, economic, and political outcomes?
  • To what extent do teacher behaviors and biases, as well as school and district policies and procedures that inscribe these biases, affect student educational attainment and labor outcomes?
  • To what extent and in what ways can behavioral insights improve our understanding of why individuals misperceive information, the consequences of such misperceptions, and how these might be corrected?
  • How do assumptions about the legal status of the foreign-born, and their variance by racial, religious, and other factors, influence the attitudes and behaviors of native-born citizens?

Institutions, Policies, Social Structures and Networks

Institutional actors may hold implicit and explicit biases and misperceptions, which may be reflected and maintained through  institutional policies and practices. In this way, systemic racism can be embedded through laws and regulations within society or an organization. It can contribute to discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, political power, and educational attainment, among other issues. Similarly, decisions are made not in isolation, but within social structures and within the context of social networks. Networks can influence how many decisions are made in the context of voting, job search, college enrollment, and other behaviors relevant to social and economic mobility, poverty, and inequality. RSF is interested in research examining the extent to which and how institutions, policies, social structures, and networks affect attitudes and behavior. For example:

  • What are the social, political, economic, and psychological causes and consequences of racial disparities in policing and criminal justice?
  • To what extent and how do neighborhoods, organizations, and other contexts in which people form and maintain networks shape their social, economic, and political attitudes and behaviors?
  • How do political and social movements such as Black Lives Matter affect political attitudes and behaviors?
  • To what extent has increased inequality affected economic, political, and educational behaviors?
  • To what extent does economic (in)security and (dis)trust in institutions influence financial decisions, political attitudes and behaviors, and treatment of others?

Motivations, Incentives and Choice Architecture

Individuals respond to incentives, and to a broad array of social, political, psychological, economic, and cultural motivations. Moreover, the ways in which options are presented to individuals (Choice Architecture) can impact their behavior. RSF is interested in research on the consequences of choice architecture and motivated behavior for social, economic, and political inequalities. For example:

  • To what extent and how do motivations (e.g., sense of belonging, group identity, self-improvement, etc.) affect behavior and decisions related to employment, socioeconomic wellbeing, mobility, or political participation?
  • What public messages and appeals might encourage self-focused, protective, or antagonistic behaviors and what might foster altruistic, pro-social behaviors?
  • To what extent and how does choice architecture impact social, economic, political, and racial/ethnic inequalities? To what extent do “smart defaults” improve the wellbeing of individuals in employment, criminal, judicial, political, educational, and other settings?

Habits, Time Preferences, Mental Bandwidth and Behavior Change

Many human behaviors are not openly motivated, in the sense that they are habitual, intuitive, taken-for-granted, or otherwise not reflective. Time preferences and burdens on mental bandwidth (e.g., due to poverty or other forms of scarcity) shape behaviors, both consciously and subconsciously. RSF is interested in research examining how consequential habits are formed and changed, and the extent to which habits, mental burdens and preferences affect social, economic, and political attitudes and behaviors. For example:

  • How are socioeconomically consequential habits formed and changed? To what extent does group membership affect the process?
  • What are the limits of nudges and similar interventions that seek to modify the choice architecture involved in social, economic, legal, and political decisions and behaviors?
  • What role do mental burdens play in social, economic, political, and legal decisions and behaviors?
  • To what extent are the consequences of time preferences beneficial or detrimental to human welfare and related policies?

Affect and Emotions

Emotions can shape attitudes and behaviors both consciously and subconsciously. RSF is interested in supporting research that examines the extent to which emotions influence social, economic, legal, and political attitudes and behaviors. For example:

  • What role do emotions play in social, economic, political, and legal decisions and behaviors
  • To what extent have anxieties about immigrant integration and national identity contributed to the rise of nativism?
  • To what extent does fear and anxiety of detention and deportation affect immigrants’ decisions and behaviors?

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