Driving Decisions Towards Truthfulness and Conscience

November 12, 2020

David Rand, PhD

If someone knocked on your door and tried to sell you solar panels, how likely might you be to buy them?

What if you learned the sales representative had those very same panels installed on his own house?

David Rand, associate professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, studies why people make choices, particularly those that benefit the greater good. Rand is a recipient of a 2020 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award.  He was nominated by the Society for Judgment and Decision Making.

He explores cooperation, online misinformation, political preferences and other related topics, offering both basic science insights and practical applications.

“We use math models, lab studies and field experiments to understand why people behave the way that they do, and how to change those behaviors for the better.”

In one study Rand recruited about a thousand people across the country and showed them a set of 30 Facebook posts; half were true and the other half were false.  For half of the participants, Rand asked: Do you think these headlines are true?  The other half were asked if they would share the headlines on social media. Rand found that people were much more likely to share false headlines than they were to say that the false headlines were true.

“We argue that this sharing of misinformation is driven in large part by inattention,” Rand says.  “On social media, attention generally is focused on, ‘if I share this, how many ‘likes’ will I get?’ and not focused on whether it’s true.” Accordingly, in survey experiments and a field experiment on Twitter, he has found that priming people to think about accuracy increases the quality of the news they share online.

“On social media, attention generally is focused on, ‘if I share this, how many ‘likes’ will I get?’ and not focused on whether it’s true.”

In another study, Rand used a combination of field work and surveys to get at the question: What can you do to get people to be more willing to adopt technologies that will help with climate change? 

In 2018 an organization was recruiting ambassadors in towns in Connecticut to encourage homeowners to install solar panels. Rand found that the ambassadors who themselves installed social panels on their own homes were much more successful than those who had not installed solar panels.

Rand then recruited over 1,800 homeowners to complete an online survey in which they received the same pitch for solar panel installation. On 1- to 7- scale, homeowners who were told that the ambassador also installed solar were a full scale point more likely to install solar themselves. Further experiments showed this was specifically because people believed that the ambassadors who didn’t install solar did not actually believe in the program’s benefits.

“If you’re trying to convince someone to do something, make it clear you also do that thing,” Rand said.  “It communicates that you truly believe it’s the right thing to do.”