Applying academic insights to the real world

Anthony Barrows, ideas42
Anthony Barrows, Managing Director at ideas42

Anthony Barrows, Managing Director at ideas42, explains how the non-profit consulting firm leverages its roots in behavioral science.

Meeri Kim: How did ideas42, as a non-profit consulting firm that applies insights from the behavioral sciences, get its start? What was the original motivation to create this unique type of organization?

Anthony Barrows: ideas42 was founded in 2008 and started as a research lab within Harvard University. The co-founders — including Sendhil Mullainathan at Harvard, Eldar Shafir at Princeton University, and Antoinette Schoar at MIT — really wanted to ensure that their research was getting into the hands of practitioners and organizations that could use these insights to make the world a better place. The notion was that there is a lot happening in academia, but too little of it gets out into the real world in the form of applied interventions aimed at improving people’s lives.

In 2012, ideas42 got spun out into an independent non-profit and migrated from Boston to New York. We now employ more than 80 people full-time across the globe, including those with Ph.D.s in social psychology and economics.

MK: Your organization has tackled a number of issues in education, such as affordability and financial aid in college, college pre-admissions, and on-time graduation. Describe ideas42’s process of choosing a project and finding partner schools to work with.

AB: Every project is really its own special adventure. In general, because we’re a non-profit, we’re getting funding from philanthropic organizations. A large foundation will say to us, “We’re interested in this topic area. What do you know about behavioral insights that could help improve outcomes?” If there is a match, we’ll get a grant. Using that money, we’ll then go find partners who can actually do something with these insights on the ground.

“We’re approaching this as a research question, not as a 100%-certain solution. We’re not a traditional consulting firm where we think we’ve got all the answers, and all we need to do is drop off our PowerPoint, and you’re all set.”

An example of this would be our work in post-secondary education. We’ve done projects over the past three years with colleges across the U.S. in social belonging, access to financial aid, course selection, persistence, etc. on the basis of funding from various foundations.

In selecting partner schools, we need to know that they have one of these problems going on at their school and can actually run the project. Because we run randomized controlled trials, they need to have a large enough student body to achieve power, and they also need to have systems in place so we can actually have a controlled experiment. Lastly, the school’s leadership needs to invest staff time and other resources to help run the experiment.

We’re approaching this as a research question, not as a 100%-certain solution. We’re not a traditional consulting firm where we think we’ve got all the answers, and all we need to do is drop off our PowerPoint, and you’re all set.

MK: What is your favorite example of an ideas42 education project that saw positive outcomes for students?

AB: The one that was personally most exciting to work on was a project on social belonging at San Francisco State, where 18% of freshmen leave before the first day of sophomore year. Many students worried about whether they were “college material” and had a hard time finding a social niche.

So, in cooperation with San Francisco State’s Cinema Department, and building on research by Geoffrey Cohen and Gregory Walton, we created a video that featured current and former students talking through their own doubts about fitting in and how they later overcame those struggles. We delivered that video through the school’s intranet platform to students in the treatment group, who also completed a writing exercise to reflect on the themes in that video that were meaningful to them. Their responses were then used to send monthly messages designed to reinforce their feelings of social belonging and help remind them of important deadlines.

“We want to take these promising, evidence-based practices and help schools adapt them to produce better student outcomes.”

After one year, within a high-risk subgroup, the treatment group saw a 10% higher retention rate and 7% higher Grade Point Average (GPA) compared to a control group, which was super-promising to see. We still haven’t figured out how to help schools scale up this intervention, but that’s at the top of our list. We want to take these promising, evidence-based practices and help schools adapt them to produce better student outcomes.

Anthony Barrows is a Managing Director at the non-profit applied behavioral science firm ideas42 where he focuses on domestic poverty, local government, post-secondary education, and civic engagement. He previously worked over ten years in public and non-profit child welfare organizations.

 

The Society for Research in Child Development, a membership association whose mission is to advance developmental science and promote its use to improve human lives, held their 2017 Biennial Meeting in Austin, Texas, April 6 – 8, 2017. The overall theme of the invited program was Developmental Science and Society, although many other areas of research in the field of child development were presented in the general program. For a full list of invited program speakers, visit Invited Program Information or view the entire program using this link: Online Program.

Anthony Barrows joined the Biennial Meeting as a panelist.