Tornadoes, Safe Sex, and Happy Hours: Why Data-Guided Policies Can Save the World

September 11, 2019

Key Findings 

  • People discount future rewards and risks.
  • People’s actions are very sensitive to their environment.
  • We can help people lead healthier lives by understanding the principles of how people make choices.

When should people hear a tornado warning siren?

If the goal is to minimize fatalities, the answer is – surprisingly – not as soon as possible. Giving people a longer heads up is better, but only up to about 15 minutes. Lead times longer than that could result in more deaths than no warning at all.

Why? Dr. Derek Reed, Associate Professor of Applied Behavioral Science at the University of Kansas, explains the solution to this riddle: we reduce the value or risk of events in the future, a phenomenon called delay discounting.

“We’re typically myopic in how we make decisions,” explains Reed. For example, most people would prefer $20 immediately, rather than $25 in a year. We often choose smaller, immediate rewards—binging television, eating pizza, smoking a cigarette—over larger monetary, career or health returns in the future. “When we make decisions, we think about our present self. But our future self does not have the same preferences.”

When we make decisions, we think about our present self. But our future self does not have the same preferences.

– Derek Reed

In the case of tornadoes, ongoing work in Reed’s Applied Behavioral Economics Laboratory points to 15 minutes as the sweet spot for issuing warning sirens. It’s enough time for people to act, but not so long enough that people discount the danger.

Reed’s research saves lives. His vibrant body of work reaches beyond disaster warnings, showing that phenomena like delay discounting sculpt people’s choices in every domain.

For example, current studies in Reed’s lab investigate what college students might do given just a 10-minute delay in access to a condom during a sexual encounter. He found that 50% of students said that they would have unprotected sex rather than abstain, a finding with consequences for health policy.

“Choice is incredibly sensitive to environmental variables,” says Reed. And because of how responsive people’s choices are to context, even small changes on a policy-level can alter the trajectory of people’s health and livelihoods.

“Nothing is arbitrary. We need to take policy decisions seriously and use data to inform what we do. Because what we do is influencing behavior, regardless of our intentions.” For example, whether the law requires retailers to include taxes in advertised prices for cigarettes and indoor tanning influences how likely people are consume these products.

Reed uses the core idea of his field of behavior analysis – that the environment molds behavior – to contribute to socially crucial topics. “At the end of the day, I describe myself as not just a psychologist or a behavior analyst,” Reed says, “But as a problem analyst.”

By using quantitative models to predict behavior, Reed unearths essential truths about why people make certain choices. “The models we use to understand substance use disorder work just as well for understanding how the cost of gasoline affects people’s likelihood of taking a trip,” says Reed.

With the power of data-driven models at his fingertips, Reed has investigated implications of cannabis legalization, contributions to smoking abstinence, behavioral consequences of happy hours, determinates of vaccination choice, interventions for children with special needs – and more.

The universality of decision-making making principles allows Reed to be fiercely collaborative in his approach to using science to solve pressing societal problems. Moving forward, Reed is thrilled to continue to work with colleagues ranging from structural engineers to addiction researchers and school psychologists.

Reed and his collaborators are also on the cusp of launching a “bar lab” at the University of Kansas’ Cofrin Logan Center for Research Addiction and Treatment, one of only eight in the country. This fully functioning, alcohol-serving bar will also serve as a research laboratory. Here, Reed and other affiliated scientists will study how people make decisions in context, with implications for understanding risk factors behind disorders like alcohol abuse.

Derek Reed’s interdisciplinary research is supported by a fittingly diverse set of funders, including the United States Department of Energy, the Kansas Health Foundation, and internal grants from the University of Kansas.

Potential for Future Impact

  • Cannabis legalization changes marketplace supply and demand. Predicting what people will do in response can help lawmakers manage choices about legalization responsibly.
  • Changes to people’s context can nudge people to make more environmentally conscious choices.
  • Overall, policy-makers can leverage the power of models to predict how legislative changes will impact behavior. Because people sometimes behave unpredictably, decisions should be guided by data, rather than intuition.

Derek Reed is a recipient of the 2019 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Association for Behavior Analysis International.