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Aspirations Social Norms and Development

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - ASNODEV (Aspirations Social Norms and Development)

Reporting period: 2021-05-01 to 2022-08-31

Development economists and policymakers constantly face scenarios in which poor people do not make welfare-enhancing choices: they may under-invest in education, engage in risky sexual behaviors, or not adopt productivity-enhancing technologies. This project investigates the psychological and social underpinnings of such behaviors. First, it attempts to understand the relevance of “aspiration failures”, i.e. situations in which disadvantaged groups may perceive certain goals as unattainable and not invest towards those goals. Second, it studies how constraints imposed by stereotypes and social norms may lead to low aspirations and perpetuate disadvantage. Finally, it contributes to designing and testing policy interventions aimed at shifting aspirations in a way that is conducive to development.
The main findings can be summarized as follows.
• High achieving immigrant students in Italy choose high school tracks below their potential, compared to natives of similar ability. Combining career choice consultancy and tutoring can help close this gap.
• Teachers’ stereotypes may induce low aspirations. In Italy teachers with implicit bias against immigrants recommend less demanding high school tracks to them.
• Revealing implicit bias to teachers induces them to reduce the “grade penalty” that they would otherwise impose on immigrants.
• Inter-group contact is effective. A policy designed to randomly allocate roommates in South Africa led to a decrease in racial stereotypes and an improvement in academic performance.
• Peer education can help improve outcomes. In Brazil, training a group of students and sending them back to their school to discuss with peers led to higher educational aspirations and lower teen pregnancies. The effect is particularly significant when peer educators are selected based on network centrality and popularity.
• Entertainment education (edutainment) can affect people’s aspirations and behavior. In Nigeria, an evaluation of the TV series MTV Shuga shows significant impacts on HIV knowledge, attitudes, and risky sexual behaviors.
Three main strands of results were obtained.
1. Aspiration, stereotypes and behavior in educational contexts
With M. Carlana and P. Pinotti we assembled an original dataset covering immigrant and native students from 145 middle schools in Italy, including information on exam performance, high school track choice, expectations and aspirations. We show that immigrant boys have a systematically higher probability of enrolling in vocational tracks compared to native students, after controlling for their academic ability.
With A. Alesina, we measured the stereotypes held by teachers in the same schools and show that teachers with higher implicit bias penalize immigrants in non-blindly graded tests, compared to the scores that the same students got in blindly graded tests. We implemented an intervention in which a random subset of teachers was made aware of their implicit bias right before end-of-semester grading, and another subset right after. Teachers who were “treated” before the end-of-semester grading responded to the information by increasing the grade they gave to immigrant students.
With J. Burns and L. Corno, we studied roommates’ stereotypes in South Africa, using administrative as well as original survey data from a large university. We find that white students who were randomly assigned a black roommate display less negative stereotypes at the end of the first year (no significant effect on black students’ stereotypes), and that the academic performance of black students exposed to a white roommate improves (no significant effect on white students’ performance).
With E. Baumgartner, E. Breza, V. Orozco and P. Rosa-Dias we tested the effectiveness of a peer-led education program in Brazil. We randomly assigned an educational intervention that was disseminated in each school by a team of six pupils, and we also randomized the selection criterion for the peer educators, leveraging information on networks. We find significant increases in contraceptive use and decreases in teen pregnancy, with increased aspirations as measured by intended post-secondary school enrolment.
2. Aspirations, norms and the media
With A. Banerjee and V. Orozco we collaborated with MTV and the World Bank to evaluate the effectiveness of an educational TV series (Shuga) in preventing HIV-AIDS in Nigeria. We developed a theoretical model of the role played by information updating and social conformism, and we designed an evaluation strategy incorporating both aspects. We find that exposure to Shuga led to increased knowledge on the sources of transmission and the treatment of HIV/AIDS, reduced stigma towards HIV+ people, and increased HIV testing. Risky sexual behavior was also affected: viewers exposed to Shuga had fewer concurrent partnerships and lower incidence of STIs, despite the fact that condom use was not affected. We also found that Shuga led to a reduction in the acceptability of domestic violence, more pronounced among viewers who remembered the sub-plot on domestic violence.
3. Modeling aspirations
In the last part of the project, V. Novak and I worked on a novel theoretical framework to model aspirations. We develop a theory of how individuals select their aspirations, in which an agent learns about her ability to achieve the chosen aspiration while deriving utility from both the tangible payoff and the hope that the aspiration evokes. The presence of hope introduces a trade-off between one's willingness to experiment with more ambitious goals and the preference for less ambitious aspirations that are not revealed as unattainable too soon. The model implies the formation of consideration sets. We derive conditions under which selecting more ambitious aspirations leads to their attainment, as opposed to causing frustration.
The results described above are examples of rigorous tests of mechanisms that shift aspirations or use entertainment programs to induce behavior change. The unusually rich information collected through our survey data, coupled with tailored experimental designs, allows us to shed light on the channels underlying the effects. Several novel insights can stimulate further research and inform policy.
Our analysis of stereotypes shows that they can be changed (e.g. through interaction) and that individuals are not always aware of their implicit bias. When made aware, individuals modify their behavior.
Our analysis of aspirations and educational choices shows that counseling is effective in improving aspirations of disadvantaged groups and reducing the aspiration gap compared to higher socioeconomic status groups. Furthermore, peer education and targeting of information based on network position can improve educational aspirations and reduce risky behavior among teenagers.
Finally, instruments like edutainment can be effective in changing aspirations, norms and behavior, leveraging behavioral mechanisms of role modeling and identification. These solutions are particularly appealing to reach populations that are difficult to reach through traditional information campaigns, e.g. in low literacy contexts.