The Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences (MBDS) at Penn equips students with theoretical and practical tools to address a variety of real-life problems. Sakshi Ghai and Francesca Papa, two graduates of the program’s inaugural class, became interested in the problem of deterring dishonest behavior—and the solution took them all the way to Florence, Italy.
Understanding how people make decisions, and how to affect those decisions, is an invaluable skill that can be applied across situations. “I want to use behavioral science to inspire some of the best organizational practices,” says Sakshi, adding that the program’s interdisciplinary and customizable approach makes it possible to work with expert faculty and researchers in a number of different fields. “Behavioral science is your grounding in the MBDS program, but you have an incredible opportunity to curate your own experience.”
They collaborated to examine how and why individuals deviate from ethical behavior, even when exposed to powerful moral cues or messages that remind us of appropriate conduct. For example, if given the opportunity to cheat on a test, your decision to cheat or not is influenced not just by the cost and benefit, but by your personal beliefs and social norms in your community about what it means to cheat. Sakshi and Francesca aimed to test the efficacy of moral cues and determine the best way of nudging ethical behavior in individuals. They recruited 1500 participants on Amazon’s MTurk, a crowdsourcing internet marketplace, and designed an economic experiment which gave participants the opportunity to cheat on a task. The subjects were asked to roll a die once and report their number. Some subjects were exposed to a moral reminder that encouraged them not to cheat. “We were very curious to see how we could leverage the power of social norms at the intersection of different modes of written, audio and visual communications to deter cheating,” explains Sakshi. “When given an opportunity to cheat, we often don’t engage in doing an extensive cost-benefit analysis. Instead, our own personal beliefs, idiosyncratic preferences, or social and cultural norms can exert a powerful influence on our decision to cheat.”
Francesca and Sakshi traveled to Florence to present their preliminary research findings at the International Meeting on Experimental and Behavioral Social Sciences organized by the Nuffield Center of Social Sciences at the University of Oxford. They further worked on the project and recently presented a development of the study at the 2018 Norms and Behavioral Change Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. “We are quite excited to follow the direction of our research,” Francesca notes.
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