How Time Factors Into Behavioral Interventions

March 10, 2014
By Jenny Li Fowler

Determining how and why certain interventions prompt certain behaviors at certain times is a fascinating area of academic research. In a new Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Faculty Research Working Paper titled “Changing Behavior Beyond the Here and Now," Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Assistant Professor Todd Rogers and co-author Erin Frey (HBS) analyze the ways in which time affects the impact of behavioral interventions.

"Behavioral interventions vary widely in the degree to which there is a lag between the moment that they are administered and the moment that the target behavior is to be performed," the authors write. "Consider several objectives those who develop interventions often have: they aim to induce diners to properly dispose of their trash at the end of their meals; they aim to encourage people to vote in an election two weeks in the future; they aim to induce people to save for their retirements each pay cycle for the next ten years."

Rogers and Frey address three ways in which time affects behavioral interventions. First, they take a look at the features of interventions that allow the intervention to be administered at one moment and change a target behavior in the future. They call this “bridging time.”

Second, the authors focus on what they refer to as “positive marginal benefit to continued treatment,” the features of interventions that leverage psychology for a continued positive impact – long after the intervention has been administered.

Lastly, the authors examine why, in some cases, the treatment effects persist after the treatments are discontinued.

Their research also delves into when the impact of behavioral interventions will persist after the intervention has discontinued, and when it will not. “Interventions are sometimes administered during a finite window but with the objective of inducing long-term, persistent change, even after the treatment itself has ended,” write the authors. “For example, some incentive-based interventions aim to induce individuals to continue a regular exercise regimen, even after the incentives have been removed.” The paper discusses “several pathways that might lead to the persistence of treatment effects after a behavioral intervention has been discontinued.”

Rogers hopes that this paper will help guide current and future thinking on the topic. “It is notable that the logic of how a behavior change might persist over time is often unrelated to the logic of how the intervention caused the initial behavior to change,” he writes. “This [project] has implications for both researchers and policy-makers," he writes. "For researchers, it proposes an initial framework for thinking about these issues as we interpret research findings. For policymakers, it proposes an initial framework for developing more powerful and cost effective interventions that more fully leverage recent advances in the behavioral sciences.”

Todd Rogers is a behavioral scientist who is an assistant professor of public policy at HKS. Most of his current research sits at the intersection of education, psychology, judgment and decision-making, and behavioral economics. It aims to shed light on the cognitive, motivational, and social barriers to student achievement, and to develop low-cost scalable interventions that are informed by behavioral science.

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Todd Rogers, assistant professor of public policy

Todd Rogers, assistant professor of public policy

“It is notable that the logic of how a behavior change might persist over time is often unrelated to the logic of how the intervention caused the initial behavior to change."