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Brown Center Chalkboard

Smartphones: A nudger’s best or worst friend?

Ben Castleman

It goes without saying that mobile technology and smartphones have transformed our lives. Tasks that, not so many years ago, mainly happened in person or on paper now take place in the palm of our hands. Day and night we can shop, learn, navigate, and communicate—all thanks to these tiny devices.

Within the public policy domain, mobile technology has also provided a powerful channel to help people achieve outcomes that better align with their own personal goals as well as with societal interests. Researchers and policymakers have used text messaging campaigns for everything from helping people to stop smoking and encouraging people to get flu vaccines to reminding people to contribute to their savings accounts.

Leveraging text messaging to advance public policy goals has been particularly prolific in the education sector of late, with campaigns targeting parents of preschool-aged children with pre-literacy strategies all the way up to a California-wide effort to provide college-bound students with financial aid counseling. All of these campaigns cost only a few dollars per student they serve—a drop in the bucket compared to more traditional, resource-intensive strategies to improve educational outcomes. Many have been rigorously evaluated through randomized controlled trials, and have substantially improved students’ achievement or educational attainment. Low-cost, high-impact, and easily scalable—what more could educators or policy makers want?

The flip side of widespread smartphone use

It also goes without saying, however, that mobile technology has introduced an intoxicating amount of distraction into our lives. I was in line at a fast food restaurant the other day (my kids love the playground), and at least 70 percent of the people in line were staring at their phones. The restaurant, like many fast food establishments, now posts caloric information prominently on their display menus, on the idea that people will make healthier choices when they see that, for instance, a particular meal has 810 calories and 54 grams of fat. There are various reasons why caloric information on menus may not influence decisions, not the least of which being that most people now only look up from their phones for a split second to make their menu selections before going back to whatever absorbing content had been occupying them in the first place.

Like the tractor beam on the original Death Star, our phones exert a powerful magnetic pull on our attention wherever we are—at home, out shopping, too often in the car. This makes me wonder how effectively many of the informational nudges that have emerged over the years—better-designed fuel economy labels for new cars, home energy bills that let us know how our energy consumption compares to our neighbors’—can compete with the steady flood of distractions coming through our phones. This question is particularly relevant as nudge strategies gain increasing traction and popularity. It’s worth noting that most of the interventions conducted by the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST) over the past year were informational campaigns of one sort or another. Some of the campaigns led to substantial improvements in outcomes; for others the effects were quite modest.

Cutting through the noise

Interventions that provide people with simplified information or that prompt them to take action are only part of a broader toolkit of behaviorally-informed strategies to help people make active and informed decisions. But they are among the least expensive, easiest to implement, and simplest to scale, which likely accounts in large part for their growing prevalence—and predominant representation in SBST’s profile. In an age of smart phone distractions—and more broadly, information saturation—how can we ensure the ongoing success of these nudges?

  1. If you can’t beat them, join them. Part of the success of texting campaigns is that we are co-opting the captivating qualities of smartphones for policy-oriented purposes. Our phones chirp or vibrate, and at least for a fleeting moment in time, the content of each text stands out as its own content that we pay attention to and digest.
  2. But effective channels are only half the battle. Just a couple of years ago, very few schools or educational organizations were using text to communicate with students. But that’s rapidly changing. Texting still has several design advantages over email (e.g. push notifications by default), but the channel is nonetheless getting more saturated. This means that the content of messages will have an increasingly important influence on whether these campaigns are effective. In general, campaigns that harness data and analytics to deliver content that is personalized—and therefore salient—to the student are more likely to be effective. Also, messages that nudge students towards concrete actions and invite students to write back and connect with someone if they need help have a better chance of success.
  3. Continue to expand the scope of technology applications in the education field. If I were a betting man, I’d give conventional text messaging a couple years before it is too saturated for campaigns to have the same large impacts on student and family decision making in education. But there are plenty of other platforms—Snapchat, as an example—that are relatively untapped terrain for nudge interventions. We should continue to be at the frontier of how young people communicate with each other. And we’re really only at the cusp of making the full use of smartphone technology to guide informed decision-making. In the realm of college search, imagine an app that combines newly-available graduation and earnings data from the College Scorecard, academic fit data from College Board Big Futures, and navigation apps to provide students with prompts each time they travel near a high-quality college that they have a good chance of getting into. For students who are more geographically-constrained, prompts could instead proactively display nearby high quality colleges, along with public transportation options to get to/from campus.

And though informational nudges are cheap, easy, and scalable, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to invest in more resource-intensive, personalized approaches to help students and families make informed decisions. If more expensive nudge efforts result in students attending better schools and advancing in their education, the return on investment will still often exceed the costs.[1]

There’s also a reason retail politics remains important. We can communicate with people through every channel under the sun, but at the end of the day there’s not much more powerful than a knock on the door and an in-person conversation.[2]



Author

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Ben Castleman

Assistant Professor, Education and Public Policy - University of Virginia

[1] This was a point my friend and colleague Josh Wright, Executive Director of ideas42, recently made to me in an email exchange.

[2] Similarly, this is a point that Keith Frome, CEO of College Summit, made in a recent conversation. 

The Brown Center Chalkboard launched in January 2013 as a weekly series of new analyses of policy, research, and practice relevant to U.S. education.

In July 2015, the Chalkboard was re-launched as a Brookings blog in order to offer more frequent, timely, and diverse content. Contributors to both the original paper series and current blog are committed to bringing evidence to bear on the debates around education policy in America.

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