The Campus Behavioral Science Initiative

The Office of the Executive Vice President (OEVP) and the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy (CBP) introduce a new Campus Behavioral Science Initiative (CBSI) that will bring together researchers and administrators who are interested in researching and addressing significant problems on Princeton’s campus through the lens of behavioral science and policy.  The CBSI will engage a variety of campus researchers and administrators to create a mutually advantageous environment in which academic researchers can have access to local data and administrators can benefit from research results to inform University activities.

Leaders in disparate fields such as healthcare, technology, consumer behavior, and education are turning to behavioral science for evidence-based decision-making tools.  Behavioral science approaches decision-making through disciplined scientific experimentation, controlled observation of real-life behavior, and systematic analysis of data. By understanding the motivations, limitations, and biases inherent in human behavior, one can develop programs and communicate materials in compelling ways to help shape the behavior that will benefit both the individuals and the organization.

As the behavioral science approach is gaining more traction, individual administrative units and academic departments and programs have already begun using the campus as a research site and tapping the behavioral science community on campus to inform their problem solving and programmatic plans. For example:

  • When faculty leave policy was changed to include teaching relief following the birth of a child, eligible faculty—mostly women—weren’t opting for the benefit.  Revising the policy from an opt-in to an opt-out model, based on behavioral science insights, led to a significant increase in use of the benefit. An opt-out model has also been applied to supplemental retirement contributions of newly hired faculty and staff. The result is an increase in the amounts that University employees save for retirement.  
  • As part of the University's evaluation of new building design principles, the Office of Sustainability was introduced to colleagues at another research institution and given access to best practices for incorporating behaviorally motivated design elements to help building occupants make better choices about resource conservation.
  • The Office of Sustainability’s “Campus as Lab” concept has begun pairing student teams with operational units and with faculty members interested in sustainability.  Among the projects are a project in Spring ’17 to assess the effectiveness of messaging aimed to reduce dining hall food waste and an ongoing initiative to use electronic communications to affect reductions in personal energy use.

Beyond the coordination of behaviorally informed projects, one aspect of this effort is to arm senior administrative leaders with an academic foundation and practical framework for approaching their work that will help achieve University goals and improve the implementation of services and operations for the University community.

Another core activity of the CBSI is a program that matches administrators with students and faculty for short or long term research opportunities, either in an existing research portfolio or to stimulate new areas of focus. The topics may be initiated by researcher or administrator, and could include research or administrative colleagues outside of Princeton. We envision successful collaborations including undergraduate independent work (JP or senior thesis); graduate students or post-docs gaining transferable experience for careers inside or outside of the academy; faculty or PIs publishing research projects; and University administrators achieving greater success in their programs through behaviorally informed decisions, plans, communications, and quantifiable metrics.

While testing interventions at the campus scale may yield immediate benefits for the University operations and community, researchers will be keen to see the insights tested and developed here reach scale outside the Princeton context.  Participants in both the academic and administrative communities will be encouraged to leverage the discoveries for use on a larger scale, whether in local community or global context.