The Behavioral Insights Group Celebrates Faculty Member Todd Rogers

February 27, 2018

The Behavioral Insights Group is excited to announce that Todd Rogers, faculty member of the Behavioral Insights Group within the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, was recently announced as being promoted to full professor with tenure.

As well as being a ProfeTodd Rogersssor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and BIG faculty member, Rogers is a behavioral scientist and Director of the Student Social Support R&D Lab. Prof. Rogers’ research focuses on a commitment to ensuring that behavioral policy research (his own and that of others) is implemented widely and with fidelity. He has previously co-founded two social enterprises with this goal in mind: the Analyst Institute (focused on citizen engagement) and In Class Today (focused on student engagement). Prior to joining the faculty at HKS, he was founding Executive Director of the Analyst Institute, which uses randomized field experiments and behavioral science insights to understand and improve voter communication program (click here for a story in The New York Times Magazine profiling the work of the Analyst Institute). He is also a Senior Researcher with the think tank ideas42. He received his Ph.D. jointly from Harvard's department of Psychology and Harvard Business School, and received his B.A. from Williams College with majors in Religion and Psychology. Prof. Rogers teaches the popular ‘Science of Behavior Change’ (MLD 304) course offering at the Harvard Kennedy School. You can read more about Todd’s research here.

The Behavioral Insights Student Group’s Content Chair, Marie Lawrence (second-year Master in Public Policy candidate at HKS and Editor-in-Chief of the Kennedy School Review) sat down with Prof. Rogers about his work to date, some of his ongoing projects, and upcoming plans in the years ahead.


You moved from the world of political polling in DC to academia in 2011. Why the move? What do you believe you can do at a university that you couldn't do as a practitioner?

I helped found the Analyst Institute to translate behavioral science insights and methods into tactics for improving voter engagement for progressives. We worked on voter mobilization, volunteering, fundraising, and communications. The organization was doing a great job at fulfilling its mission (e.g., see The Victory Lab), but I was ready to move on to other topics. Specifically, I wanted to take a similar behavioral science approach to scalable education interventions. As an academic I have the freedom to explore new problem areas, and the time horizon to do it rigorously and thoughtfully.

In 2014, you started the Student Social Support R&D Lab. Why the pivot from politics to education? What is your vision for the lab over the coming years?

The Student Social Support R&D Lab (S3 R&D Lab) uses data and behavioral science to develop and provide scalable, high ROI interventions that mobilize and empower students’ social support systems to improve achievement. It is truly a research and development lab. Each project aims to help us better understand human behavior, while also suggesting scalable interventions to improve student success. We have already started our first spinoff from the lab, In Class Today, which is devoted to scaling up our chronic absenteeism interventions. Its core intervention is based on this paper (which has since been replicated in RCTs across 12 school districts around the US). The intervention is modeled after OPOWER (think OPOWER for attendance) and consistently reduces chronic absenteeism by 10 percent to 15 percent. In Class Today helped implement the intervention in two districts last year, and in 22 districts this year. It is growing fast because districts badly want easy-to-implement solutions for increasing the attendance of at-risk students. The lab will be working to scale up a couple of other interventions over the next few years. They will not all involve separate spinoff organizations, though. For some, the scale up will involve advocacy with legislatures, existing firms, and districts. An example of that is an intervention that automatically pushes via SMS to parents administrative information about when their child skips class, does not turn in homework or course grade falls below a critical threshold. This intervention has been shown across several RCTs involving tens of thousands of students in districts around the US and UK to have stunning effects, when implemented with fidelity.

Social support is a powerful tool for motivation. Where else--in which other policy areas--should we be considering using social support to motivate positive behaviors?

Everywhere. The idea is to leverage existing social capital to help people live fuller lives. In the process of harnessing people’s social capital, these interventions also help strengthen people’s social capital.

You just published a paper on social mobilization with Noah Goldstein and Craig Fox. What is social mobilization? What is the most promising intervention you found for motivating prosocial behavior when there is little individual benefit?

This article reviews research from several behavioral disciplines to derive strategies for prompting people to perform behaviors that are individually costly and provide negligible individual or social benefits but are meaningful when performed by a large number of individuals. Examples of these behaviors include participating in elections, recycling or reducing energy use, and giving small dollar donations. Social mobilization refers specifically to principles that can be used to influence a large number of individuals to participate in an activity. The motivational force of social mobilization is amplified by the fact that others benefit from the encouraged behaviors, and its overall impact is enhanced by the fact that people are embedded within social networks. There isn’t really one “best intervention,” but the article does provide a framework for developing interventions to help mobilize these kinds of mass behaviors.

What are you proudest of accomplishing since starting as an assistant professor in 2011?

Besides helping raise two amazing kids? I think I am most proud of the impact In Class Today is having on reducing student absenteeism around the US. It’s helping districts address a big problem, and in the process also helping generate additional revenue for many districts due to the increased attendance.

What's next for your work at Harvard and beyond?

Hard to say. One thing I am fascinated by is what leaders think counts as evidence when they are deciding to adopt a new practice. How do leaders determine what counts as valid evidence? How much do leaders care about randomized experimental evidence as opposed to other forms of evidence? What drives leaders’ decisions to adopt one practice over another? And ultimately, how do we increase the use of evidence-based practices?

See also: In the News