Behavioral Insights and Family Planning

This piece is the seventh in a series of blog posts on Isabel Sawhill’s new book Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. To read the previous pieces, click here: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)

In yesterday’s blog post, Belle Sawhill posed a fundamental question about human behavior: “Why do people fail to act in their own self-interest?” One could similarly ask “why do people not do the things they profess to want to do?” The context in which she poses this question is especially compelling: in the U.S., 60 percent of all births to young, single women are “unplanned.” Given the potential economic, social, and personal costs of unwed early childbearing, this mismatch between intentions and behaviors presents a puzzle whose solution could yield significant public and private benefits.

Minor Factors Influence Decisions in a Major Way

As it turns out, cognitive scientists and behavioral economists have identified an answer to this puzzle: basic human psychology often puts up roadblocks on the path between expressed intentions and actual behavior. Human beings do not always understand their choices or know how to weigh them clearly (and they are not always fully informed in the first instance). Context and social norms also affect people’s choices. And, as Sawhill notes, optimal behavior requires self-control. When surveyed about weight loss or low savings rates, for example, many individuals report that they would like to lose weight or save more money but lack the willpower.

Further, research in behavioral science has demonstrated the ways in which individuals’ decisions can be swayed significantly by seemingly minor factors such as how a choice is framed (i.e., presented), the reference point to which a choice is anchored, or even how many options one has to select from. These findings are increasingly recognized as relevant to public policy, in part because studies show that minor changes in these factors can have significant effects on behavior. What makes this idea even more appealing is that many of the ideas in the “behavioral economics toolkit” are low cost, light touch, and highly scalable.

Using the Behavioral Economics Toolkit to Improve Well-being

One of the canonical policy-relevant examples from behavioral economics addresses the same issue that concerns Sawhill:  changing the default. The world of retirement savings has been revolutionized by the work of behavioral economist Richard Thaler, who recognized that “opting in” to a program was far less effective than “opting out.” Thus was created the “Save More Tomorrow” retirement plan. This plan, which draws heavily on behavioral insights, gives workers the option of committing themselves now to increase their savings rate later. Once employees join, they stay in the plan until they opt out. The impact of opt-out plans on savings has been substantial.

Sawhill wants to change the default for family planning in a way that is consistent with young women and girls’ expressed preferences and makes it as easy as possible for that person to match their goals and behaviors. The implication is that if young women profess to not want to get pregnant, we should make LARCs the contraceptive model of choice and we should make access to this product as easy as possible. If women then changed their mind about becoming pregnant, they could easily “opt-out” of the LARC and thus increase the intentionality of their pregnancy. This approach might need to be bolstered with complementary efforts, such as those that “changed the frame” around LARCs or promoted positive social norms around its use in different demographic groups. Nonetheless, given the success of using behavioral insights to inform public policy affecting other important arenas of human behavior, Sawhill’s idea is certainly worthy of pursuing.