December 14, 2010 — This fall 20 students in a new University of Virginia class, "Wise Interventions: Social Psychology for Public Policy," were given a challenging final assignment: Use insights from social psychology to improve human welfare. They could address any issue they wanted, large or small.
The students presented their proposals last week in a poster symposium in the Clark Hall Mural Room.
"They tackled important challenges: social disparities in the health care, education, justice and political systems, whistle-blowing in organizations, coal use and clean air, the obesity epidemic, emergency services, care for the elderly, and the list goes on," said Sophie Trawalter, an assistant professor of public policy and psychology in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
"Social psychology – how the situation affects behavior – can provide a useful perspective for understanding, predicting, and even changing – and improving – behavior," she added.
The assignment called for students to write a grant proposal for a social psychology experiment with a budget of $30,000. After identifying a psychological process which contributes to a social problem, and summarizing relevant literature on the process, the students proposed a hypothesis, designed an experiment to test it and outlined how expected results might be evaluated, and how those results might influence public policy.
The assignment mimicked actual graduate-level grant applications, so that, with a bit more polish, students could actually submit their grants for funding, Trawalter noted.
Monica Noble, a fourth-year psychology major in the College of Arts & Sciences enrolled in the five-year BA/BS-Master of Public Health program who intends to work in health policy, sought to address a problem she had witnessed during her years of volunteering with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad. A small subset of those who call 911 do so frequently, sometimes every day for weeks on end, Noble said. One person called more than 200 times in the past year.
Such "frequent fliers," as they are known by those who treat them, present a severe drain on the emergency medical system as they "divert resources away from people who actually are having emergencies," Noble said. They often call 911 or go to the emergency room with non-urgent complaints like cold- or flu-like symptoms, or generalized abdominal pain, "more of a behavioral, psychological issue rather than a medical issue," Noble said.
To address this, Noble suggested two interventions that other studies have found can reduce average stress levels.
One group of frequent fliers would be guided through a self-affirmation exercise like writing about an important value and the times they exhibited that value – an exercise in "being good to yourself" that tends to affirm one's integrity and sense of worth. A second group would do volunteer work in the local community. Both groups should report reduced stress levels and less tendency to dial 911, Noble's proposal predicted.
Desiree Smith, a fifth-year student in the Batten School's Master of Public Policy program, opted to address the wealth gap between black and white Americans by focusing on promoting black homeownership.
To do so, she aimed to boost the rate at which blacks apply for home mortgages, which is far below the rate for whites. To address multiple social psychological factors that may inhibit blacks from applying, her experiment would randomly offer a $550 mortgage payment assistance to some black mortgage applicants. She predicted the payment would tend to improve black attitudes toward home ownership, which would be measured with a survey given before and after applying for a mortgage.
Going through the assignment "made me appreciate psychology and all the details that go into planning an experiment," Smith said. "In policy classes, we often critique studies and it's easy to see what was done wrong; it's another thing to have to actually create an experiment. That was an important lesson."
Batten School Dean Harry Harding came by to check out the presentations. "It's exciting to see the students try to introduce insights from social psychology to stimulate beneficial behavior. They've come up with interesting problems and interesting hypotheses."
The research grant proposals were the culmination of the class and the last of several unconventional assignments. For their first assignment, the students wrote a (hypothetical) briefing to the superintendent of the New York State Police on the main psychological research findings regarding two commonly proposed reforms to improve the reliability of eyewitness identification in police lineups.
Next, the students had to identify and analyze the unstated behavioral assumptions underlying a particular piece of state or federal legislation intended to change the behavior of individuals. After that, students wrote an op-ed essay, modeled on examples from the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere, using social psychology insights to address a public policy debate such as how labels – "tax bonus" versus "tax rebate" – impact people's likelihood to spend a stimulus check.
"The class offered a good balance of psychology and policy," said Kelsey Ball, a fourth-year psychology major who wants to pursue graduate studies in forensic psychology. The mix of students – about half from Batten and half psychology majors – had to work together and brought complementary strengths, Ball said: the Batten students had done little in the realm of psychological experiments, while the psychology students had scant exposure to public policy.
Every reading in social psychology research was applied to a concrete social problem, said Megan Hess, a doctoral student at the Darden School of Business and one of two Darden students in the class.
"The public policy focus made it so real and so relevant," she said.