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Aspirations Social Norms and Development

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - ASNODEV (Aspirations Social Norms and Development)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2021-04-30

Development economists and policymakers constantly face scenarios in which poor people do not make welfare-enhancing choices: the poor may under-invest in their children’s education, engage in risky sexual behaviours, or not adopt productivity-enhancing technologies (Banerjee and Duflo, 2011). This project investigates the psychological and social underpinnings of such behaviors. First, it attempts to assess empirically the presence of “aspirations traps”, that is, situations in which the poor may perceive certain goals as beyond their reach, hence they may not invest towards those goals, thus perpetuating their state of poverty (Ray, 2006). Second, it studies the role that constraints imposed by social norms or institutional factors play in generating low aspirations and perpetuating disadvantage. Finally, it designs and tests policy interventions aimed at shifting aspirations in a way that is conducive to development.

Understanding the role played by aspirations and norms is important because it affects the type of policy recommendations that we offer. Traditional explanations for why the poor under-invest have stressed the role played by lack of information on the returns to investment, insufficient access to capital, and market imperfections in general. Based on these analyses, policy should aim at correcting information failures, improving market access (e.g. through new credit products) or increasing the amount of resources available to the poor (e.g. through cash transfers).
While we do not in any way underestimate the importance of these resource constraints, we want to explore the possibility of increasing the willingness to invest –and ultimately the well being- of disadvantaged individuals by shifting their perceptions of what is attainable and what is acceptable in society. Of course this needs to be in line with realistic prospects, that is, the proposed shift must correct an existing “behavioral failure”.

The project studies different contexts in which aspirations affect investment and different potential policy responses.
One important aim is to understand educational choices by disadvantaged groups. Education is a long term investment with important consequences for social mobility. We study how immigrant groups choose different school tracks, what role aspirations and perceived barriers play in this choice, and if it is possibile to align their choices with their academic potential. We also study the influence of the stereotypes held by teachers or by peer students on academic performance and choices of marginalized groups. This first body of evidence improves our ability to design policies that level the playing field between more and less disadvantaged groups.
A second aim is to understand how the portrayal of acceptable norms and behavior in society shapes individual choices. Mass media, and television in particular, have played and still play a crucial role in providing information and portraying different lifestyles in developed and developing countries. We study how individuals respond to media content, for example as related to gender norms, and we propose an “educational” use of entertainment media (“edutainment”) to achieve, among other things, a reduction in risky health behaviors and an improvement in gender equality.
In both cases, the impact of the policy interventions proposed is estimated using a variety of methods, including randomized controlled experiments.

Overall, the results of this project should advance our knowledge on the sources of aspiration failures, on the interplay between aspirations and social norms, and eventually open the avenue for a new array of anti-poverty policies.
Since the beginning of the project the analysis has progressed in parallel for the study of educational choices and the role of the media in shaping aspirations and behavior.
For educational choices, we have assembled an original dataset covering immigrant and native students from 145 middle schools in Northern Italy, and including information on exam performance, high school track choice, expectations and aspirations. We have shown that immigrant boys have a systematically higher probability of enrolling in vocational tracks compared to native students, even after controlling for their academic ability. We have then implemented a randomized controlled trial (RCT) offering a tutoring and counseling program in 70 of the above schools, and found that the program increased the proportion of immigrants who chose non-vocational tracks, bringing it in line with that of native students with comparable school performance.
We have also measured the stereotypes held by teachers in the same schools, and how these stereotypes affect their grading behavior. We found that teachers with higher implicit bias tended to penalize immigrants in non-blindly graded tests, compared to the scores that the same students got in blindly graded, standardized 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. We show that teachers who were “treated” before the end-of-semester grading respond to the information about their implicit bias by increasing the graded they give to immigrant students.
Finally, we have studied the role played by roommates’ stereotypes in South Africa, using administrative as well as original survey data from a large university. We study interactions between white and black South Africans, and test Allport’s hypothesis that inter-group contact may reduce bias towards the outgroup and increase cooperation. We find that white students who were randomly assigned a black roommate display less negative stereotypes at the end of the first year, and that the academic performance of black students exposed to a white roommate improves. The two effects are complementary, as black students’ performance improves more, the lower the baseline level of prejudice of their roommate.
Regarding the role of the media, we have conducted an innovative experiment in collaboration with MTV International and with the World Bank to evaluate the effectiveness of an educational TV series in preventing HIV-AIDS in Nigeria. We developed a theoretical model of the role played by information updating and by social conformism, and designed the experiment to separately identify the effect of basic exposure to the show and the effects of exposure coupled with information on the attitudes of peers. Treatment was randomized at the screening center level, with a total of 80 screening centers included in the study from urban and peri-urban areas of Southern Nigeria. The control group received a show that had no educational component.
We found that exposure to the show increased individual knowledge about prevention and treatment of HIV, and improved attitudes towards HIV positive people. Importantly, it doubled the share of people who tested for HIV and it reduced the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, consistent with less risky sexual behavior by people exposed to the show. We found that most of the effect comes from simply being exposed to the show, and the role of announcing information about other people’s attitudes is limited or null, on top of what the show already conveys. We also tested for spillover effects on individuals not directly exposed to the program (but who were friends of treated individuals) and found effects on information for friends of the opposite sex, and no effect on attitudes and behavior.
These findings suggest that educational entertainment may be an effective way of inducing behavior change, by leveraging role models displayed on the screen and engaging young viewers with the message
The results described above are among the few existing 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.
In the remaining period until the end of the project the goal is to further advance our understanding of these mechanisms by studying different context, both in terms of geography and in terms of the behaviors analyzed.