fbpx Professor Todd Rogers and the Behavioral Insights Group are nudging people toward better choices | Harvard Kennedy School

LOTS OF TEACHERS will tell you how to write better. But Professor of Public Policy Todd Rogers is one of the few who use science to help you write for greater impact. His recent executive education webinar is appropriately titled “The Science of Corresponding with Busy People.” Rogers’s current focus on effective writing is the third wave of research in an already prolific career. For two decades, Rogers has been on the leading edge of behavioral science, using scientific tools and experiments to analyze what often seems irrational—human behavior—and to help people make better choices.

Beyond his own research, Rogers has a track record of building organizations and social enterprises that apply and spread the ideas of the young but fast-developing field of behavioral science. He’s a serial scholarly entrepreneur, spurring a growing global network of researchers and practitioners who have brought scientific methods into a broad range of industries, government agencies, and nonprofit arenas to influence behavior.

His first passion was politics—applying the discipline of randomized field studies to the art of getting people to vote. A decade ago, he shifted his focus to education, examining how to reduce student absenteeism. When the pandemic hit, Rogers recognized that poor communication about attendance was affecting students and parents as they struggled to shift to online learning, especially in communities of color.

He saw that messaging on school attendance had some of the same flaws as the voter-turnout messages he’d studied years before. He wondered how much effect improved communication could have in other behavioral science applications. He began measuring the impact of streamlining messages with his behavioral science toolkit, and the results were striking. Now he and his frequent coauthor Jessica Lasky-Fink are writing a practical (and intentionally brief) book about it.

letter being cut by scissors
Make it shorter.

In his executive education webinar this spring, Rogers shared many examples. For instance, he gave the HKS executive education team a checklist for improving the webinar’s promotional email. They cut 30 percent of the words from the original version, simplified sentences to a seventh-grade reading level, and improved the design to make sign-up easier. Then they sent the original version to half the prospects and the tighter one to the other half. The shorter one was 95 percent more effective: Nearly twice as many people who got the revised version signed up.

“By not making it easy to understand and consume, you’re wasting people’s time and being unkind to the reader,” Rogers told the audience. To press home the point, he recalled that the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in 1656, “I am writing you a longer letter only because I did not have time to make it shorter.” Then, with a grin, Rogers shared his team’s tightened version of that famous sentence: “With more time I would have written a shorter letter.”

“My favorite part of being at HKS is the students we get to teach,” Rogers says. “Helping our students be better at serving others is incredibly rewarding. Government officials, fire chiefs, state legislators, mayors, public servants of all kinds—they go out and apply this material, and they report back. It’s a privilege to be useful to them.”
 

Building BIG


What distinguishes Rogers from some other academics is his ability to combine his rigorous peer-reviewed scholarship with organization-building to put his research to productive use. At Harvard, he directs the Behavioral Insights Group (BIG), which pulls together all the expertise and interest in behavioral science burgeoning across Harvard University. BIG now includes 52 faculty members, more than 800 student followers, and 15,000 Twitter followers around the world.

“What I love about BIG is being able to support and learn from all the incredible scholars across Harvard,” Rogers says.  

BIG was founded in 2013 by Iris Bohnet, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, and Professor Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School. Bohnet, a behavioral economist, is an expert in gender equality and debiasing how people live and work. Other HKS faculty  members in the group are Jennifer Lerner, Michela Carlana, David Gergen, Julia Minson, Desmond Ang, and Richard Zeckhauser. 

Rogers and the BIG project, previously based in the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, moved in July to the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy—along with other decision scientists at the School, including Lerner and Minson.

Trimming flowers on a letter
Simplify the language.

In August 2020, the BIG team launched a mentoring program on “building behavioral design teams for public good.” This incubator project recruited 20 Harvard students and alumni and matched each one with a faculty or peer mentor. They worked together in coaching and workshops for several months.

“What really surprised us is how much alumni learned from each other,” said BIG program director Maja Niksic, adding that the pilot is being evaluated to see how to make the mentoring a regular offering. “BIG is the piece that connects behavioral science students, alumni, and the Harvard community.”

BIG staged a virtual expo in the spring for Harvard students considering careers in behavioral science, with a lineup that showed off the diverse array of organizations that now incorporate the science of behavior change into their operations. One is a nonprofit that Rogers is involved with as a science advisor. It helps clients use behavioral change in everything from reducing youth offender recidivism to ending intimate partner violence. Among those recruiting at the expo was a 10-year-old firm called Irrational Labs; another was The Center for Advanced Hindsight. Others were based in Ethiopia and India.

Rogers also established and leads the Kennedy School’s Student Social Support Lab, or S3Lab, to help conduct his varied research projects on “mobilizing and empowering social systems to support student achievement.” His research includes more than a dozen studies in nearly 400 schools across the country. One project is examining ways to turn friends and family in college students’ social networks into “study supporters” by getting them more involved with a student’s courses, deadlines, and resources. 
 

Always on a mission


The drive that Rogers brings to all his work was evident early. He grew up outside Philadelphia and in high school was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and completed chemotherapy during his junior year. At Williams College, he studied psychology and religion. A professor there, Al Goethals, excited his interest in behavioral psychology, not least the ways in which the brain can steer people away from rational choices.

In his aptly titled book, The Victory Lab, journalist Sasha Issenberg devotes chapters to Rogers, recounting his evolution as a pioneer in applying lab-style scientific analysis to voter behavior in elections. After college, Rogers first worked for a small political research firm but soon left to pursue an advanced degree at Harvard. He earned his PhD in psychology and behavioral science jointly from Harvard’s Department of Psychology and Harvard Business School, where he was mentored by Bazerman, who helped develop the field of behavioral science.

Parking sign with left and right arrows
Use formatting to direct attention.

But Rogers was not interested in the many emerging applications of the field that influence consumer decision-making. He wanted to inject science into the practice of progressive politics. He tried unsuccessfully to get Democratic candidates who were running in the 2004 New Hampshire presidential primary to test his ideas on voter choices by adding an experiment in a live campaign. In 2006, while still studying at Harvard, he joined a national consortium of behavioral scientists created to assist liberal candidates. 

In 2008, he was far more successful with his field-work. In what became a landmark experiment, he and a frequent partner, David Nickerson, now a professor at Temple University, ran a test with 287,000 potential voters to see whether urging them to make a plan for getting to the polls would prod them to vote. It turned out to have a dramatic impact—more than double that of the traditional get-out-the-vote messages. That tactic has become standard fare in political campaigns, including the one in 2020.
 

Changing political behavior 


In 2008, just before earning his Harvard doctorate at the age of 30, Rogers was hired to build and lead a new Washington enterprise, the Analyst Institute (AI). The institute was launched to bring behavioral science methods into the political world in behalf of progressive causes. It remains a powerful player in the world of progressive data science, behavioral science, and voter communication.

Rogers’s work had caught the eye of Michael Podhorzer, a legendary political operative who is the head of strategic research for the AFL-CIO. Podhorzer chose Rogers over a host of political scientists and veteran consultants to lead and build AI into a firm that would use randomized field experiments and behavioral science insights to analyze and improve voter education. He says now that his instincts in picking Rogers were borne out. “He wasn’t from our world, so as difficult as it was for him, he was outside of the politics of all these organizations so that he could just be completely rigorous in testing and reporting results,” Podhorzer says, “and all that really established the Analyst Institute as an institution that valued truth and evidence.”

Podhorzer says AI under Rogers marked “a sort of tidal shift among political practitioners, in the sense that after a couple of years people felt obligated to make their arguments on the evidence. It’s changed the language of how you talk about political advocacy.” One reason for that success: “Todd just has such a great ability to make things that could be wonky or hard to relate to actually easy to understand.”
 

The education challenge


After three and a half years running the Analyst Institute, Rogers accepted an offer to join the Kennedy School as an assistant professor of public policy. 

That was not the first time that HKS had tried to recruit him. “As Todd was finishing his doctoral program, we selected him out of an outstanding group of applicants,” recalls Jennifer Lerner, the Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy, Decision Science, and Management, and a BIG faculty member. “I can still remember trying to persuade him, without success, that we were the best place for him to thrive. At the time, his decision to go to the Analyst Institute seemed like a significant loss for HKS. Now I see that all parties are better off; his pioneering work at AI enabled him to bring unique insights from practice back to HKS.”  

When he landed at  HKS, in 2011, Rogers shifted the aim of his behavioral science work toward improving education outcomes, especially to help students of color. Education research proved more difficult than he had expected.

“I’ve found it so much easier to do research on voter mobilization interventions, and to disseminate the findings,” Rogers says now. “In education, a randomized field experiment can take several years, costing a lot of money and time, and then most interventions have only minimal effects.” 

Surfboarder riding a wave-like letter
Make key information obvious to skimmers.

These interventions are known in behavioral science as nudges. (They push people to change their behavior voluntarily, as opposed to regulations or requirements.) The Nobel Prize–winning economist Richard Thaler popularized the concept in a 2008 book with noted legal scholar Cass Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. The cumulative impact of nudges can be significant. One breakthrough research project in the School District of Philadelphia, conducted by Rogers and UC Berkeley Professor Avi Feller, involved a randomized experiment in which some parents received a program of mail-based personalized updates about their children’s total accumulated absences compared with the average of their children’s classmates. The goal was to focus parent attention on an outcome they can have immediate influence over—student absenteeism—and to correct widely held misbeliefs about their children’s absenteeism. The intervention had a surprisingly large impact, at very low cost. Rogers then replicated the finding in Chicago Public Schools and in several other school districts.

“The absenteeism work nicely exemplifies Todd’s ability to identify the friction in a given system and then reduce it for the benefit of students and families,” says Lerner. “While many accept bureaucratic school systems as entrenched, Todd finds the ideal component on which to intervene, applies behavioral insights, carefully assesses the impact, and then tweaks the intervention until it maximizes beneficial outcomes. A surgery metaphor may be apt: He cuts out blockages.”

In fact, the impact was so striking that Philadelphia officials asked Rogers to help implement it district-wide. However, for the Kennedy School, that pushed beyond the academic boundary of scholarly research and into service delivery. So in 2016 Rogers and Feller launched a company, now called EveryDay Labs. He still consults there a few hours a week as part of his outside activities.

EveryDay Labs has gone on to work in more than 1,500 schools. Chief Executive Emily Bailard calculates that the company’s research-driven interventions have increased school attendance among some of the most disadvantaged students by almost one million days.“I think of our work as providing the right message to the right family and student at the right moment and through the right modality to drive action. For us, the action is to prevent absences,” Bailard says. “That is the same as the political work that Todd did: What’s the right message to provide to the right voter to get out the vote?”

She describes Rogers as a mentor: “He has the science, but also an incredible sense of personal purpose. He has far less ego than most professors. He is really mission-driven. He also is a superconnector. He meets so many people, and he is constantly thinking about how this person can further the vision of helping students. He is all about entrepreneurial scholarship.”

Stack of letters taking off as paper airplane
Make the response as easy as possible. 

The aim of his education research has remained constant, inspired by the work of his education research mentor, Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Karen Mapp. Rogers describes the question this way: “How do we invest in families and social connections to help students succeed, and what is the psychology of that?”

Another of his projects involved Vice President Kamala Harris, when she was attorney general of California. She had made the fight against truancy and chronic absenteeism a priority, seeing it at first through a criminal justice lens. Rogers worked with her office and other school attendance experts to test ways to simplify the legalese of the official messages to parents. The team included Jessica Lasky-Fink of UC Berkeley, Carly Robinson of Brown University, and the attendance expert Hedy Chang MPP 1989. Chang initially inspired Rogers to work on student absenteeism, and he credits her with making the issue a focus of national attendance policy.

Their study found that the children of parents who received the more readable letters significantly reduced their absenteeism. Variants of those letters are now being adopted and implemented by school districts around the United States. 
 

Communicating kindly


When the pandemic struck, Rogers saw sudden evidence of the increased strains and burdens on the most vulnerable families in school districts. With stress on working parents’ already taxed time, and with many parents finding reading to be a challenge, it was clear that the flood of (critical) information that schools were sending them was not getting through as well as it could. 

“I’m very focused on the consequences of poorly written messages,” Rogers says. “Often they are not read; and if they are read, they just impose an unkind time tax on the reader. In addition to being ineffective, poorly written messages are just unkind to those who do read them.”

He has run numerous randomized experiments identifying the principles for how to write so busy people will read. For instance, last August, he surveyed 7,000 U.S. school board members, asking them to fill out a survey about the pandemic. Half of them received the full appeal; the other half received an appeal in which he had deleted 60 percent of the words. The shorter message generated nearly twice as many survey responses.

From his two decades of work getting out the vote and getting students to school, Rogers has distilled five principles for how to write so that busy people will read. And for each rule, he’s got data and evidence from behavioral science experiments to make his case:

  1. Make it shorter.
  2. Simplify the language.
  3. Use formatting to direct attention.
  4. Make key information obvious to skimmers.
  5. Make the response as easy as possible

JavaScript - Do Not Delete

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.