The world of social science experiments: helping the world, one experiment at a time

The world of social science experiments: helping the world, one experiment at a time

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We need to improve our behaviour before it's too late.
Photo: CityU

Life is short and precious. Yet for some reason we spend a huge amount of time doing things we dislike. For some, school may be a dreaded chore, flipping through hundreds of pages, memorising tonnes of equations, or taking headache-inducing tests.

But believe it or not, there is another side to education, one where learning can be fun. No, it’s not an art class, or physical education, or even lunch break. It is, as Disney puts it, “A Whole New World” – the world of social science experiments.

When you hear the word “experiment”, you probably think of test tubes containing chemicals, people in white lab coats wearing safety goggles, or an experiment you did in science class. However, social science research offers a unique twist on this traditional perception.

As its name implies, “social science” deals with human behaviour and tries to guide people towards better lives, for example, by quitting smoking.

I know what you’re thinking: how can I improve the behaviour of others when I can’t even change my own bad habits? You may have heard of some methods, such as using financial disincentives (fines) or financial incentives (subsidies). In contrast, one new approach used increasingly by social scientists and governments is called “nudging”, meaning informational cues that guide people towards positive behaviour.

In experiments, these nudges are applied as independent variables that can be manipulated. The nudge is given to randomly selected groups. Social scientists find that even the simplest of nudges, such as putting up a sign with an arrow, can transform behaviour.

Some of these improvements have been applied on an even larger scale. Social science experiments have used behavioural nudges to warn people about the dangers of smoking, encourage healthy diets, and in Britain, to get people to pay their taxes on time. Even in Hong Kong, social science research conducted by the Laboratory for Public Management & Policy at City University has used the concept of nudging to encourage fitness, for example, by using the stairs; and eco-friendly habits, through recycling.

The potential benefits from a social science experiment are limitless. All of society can progress as individuals improve their own behaviour. What’s more, researchers benefit, too; the progression of the experiment is enjoyable, and the ending is gratifying. After all, there is nothing more rewarding than having a positive impact on the lives of others.

Click here for more information on other successful research projects.

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