For Boston University behavioral scientist Nina Mazar, getting the chance to influence real-world change is the driving force behind her research: What inspires people to change their habits? How do people make personal and financial decisions, big and small?
“We want to see if the types of interventions we come up with can change behavior for the better,” says Mazar, BU Questrom School of Business professor of marketing and behavioral science researcher who codirects The Susilo Institute for Ethics in the Global Economy.
Most recently, Mazar has been focused on behavior related to something on everyone’s mind: COVID-19 vaccines. Specifically, she’s been developing strategies that could increase vaccination rates in underserved communities in the United States, making COVID-19 vaccine distribution more equitable and robust.
Public health experts have long stated that getting enough of the population vaccinated to establish herd immunity is key to putting an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. But vaccination rates have stagnated over the last few months and many people are choosing not to get a COVID-19 shot for all sorts of reasons-some for medical reasons, some out of personal choice, and some for believing false information about the vaccine. As a result, the US is still a far way off from stopping the spread of the virus.
“We need a major push to understand how we can encourage people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine [now that it’s] available, and particular attention must be paid to understanding how to encourage inoculation among most at-risk populations,” Mazar says, pointing out that some of the populations at highest risk of COVID-19 infections overlap with communities that have reported more hesitancy about getting the vaccine. Black and Latinx populations, for example, have sociodemographic risk factors that have resulted in people from their communities dying at a rate higher than other racial groups from severe coronavirus infections.
To bring vaccine rates up among all communities, especially those at risk for serious illness and death, Mazar believes that behavioral science has an important role to play.
She and her lab, along with collaborators from the University of Pennsylvania’s Behavior Change for Good Initiative and the Penn Medicine Nudge Unit, are using machine learning methods to parse out which behavior strategies-such as messaging and different public health and vaccine communication methods-are most effective at reaching and influencing behavior in different populations, including groups broken out by race and ethnicity. This will give a clearer picture on what did and didn’t work to inspire people to get vaccinated across diverse communities, a critical piece of data that is often missing from traditional vaccine studies, Mazar says.
For their research, the team is leveraging data from the largest flu shot study, run by the University of Pennsylvania during the 2020-2021 flu season. The study reached over 700,000 adults and gathered data on what strategies to increase vaccination rates those participants were exposed to.
“We oftentimes lack the power-the scale, number of observations-to examine if and how underrepresented minorities react to different message interventions,” Mazar says. “We need to understand if personalized intervention rules are indeed generalizable across different groups.”
Once analyzed, their results are expected by early next year, and will hopefully help better prepare us for the following flu season, as well as improve public health campaigns for COVID-19 vaccination. The findings could potentially help state and federal policymakers, hospital chief officers, frontline practitioners, vaccine providers, funders, and other stakeholders better understand what messages, or “nudges,” could encourage people from different populations to accept invitation to receive, or actively seek out, COVID-19 vaccinations or seasonal flu shots.
Mazar’s work goes far beyond vaccines, however. In the past, she has also studied behavior across all aspects of people’s lives, such as strategies to help people pay off credit card debit, increase the number of organ donors, and shift the time of day people use the most energy in their homes.
The latter study involved a partnership between the local government in Ontario and BEworks, a consulting firm applying behavioral economics to real-world challenges that Mazar founded over a decade ago. To find effective strategies to incentivize people to use energy more wisely in their own homes, she designed experiments that involved redesigning electricity bills to see which graphics, colors, and communication strategies were most effective in informing customers about their electricity usage. The team saw small but significant shifts that showed the power of effective communication via paper electricity bills.
“These are little changes that can have an impact on the environment…and electricity companies and governments have an interest in shifting our demand for energy,” she says. Mazar hopes to continue finding opportunities to implement her studies in the real world to impact real people and businesses.