Nudging Students to Choose a Major

In one sense, it seems like advice does not work. Advice is often ignored and sometimes even resented. People are going to just do what they want.

And yet, many people were in fact influenced by advice at some point in some situation. Many people can tell you about a mentor they spoke with or a book they read. Somehow, we do indeed need to learn about our environments and make choices about career and health and relationships. So, advice does work, sometimes.

A trivial example is why I stopped putting sugar in my coffee. A random anonymous message board post said that you should stop putting sugar in your coffee and your taste will adjust. “You won’t even miss it,” the anonymous poster told me. From that day forward, I stopped putting sugar in my coffee. I’m healthier and I don’t miss it. I was “nudged”. I was also predisposed to make this healthy decision, and I had sought out advice.

We might overestimate the effectiveness of advice because when people bother to talk about it, they mention the one time it affected them. First, they fail to mention the thousands of messages that had no effect (personally I still eat all kinds of junk food that contain sugar despite getting warnings to stop). And secondly, some decisions (perhaps including my coffee-sugar example) would have been made eventually without the advice event. Even recognizing those limitations, I still believe that messaging works sometimes.

It is tempting to think that, at almost zero cost, you could nudge people into making different decisions, just by sending them messages. There is a growing literature on this topic. Economists like myself are collecting data on whether it works.

One of these papers was just published:

Halim, Daniel, Elizabeth T. Powers, and Rebecca Thornton. 2022. “Gender Differences in Economics Course-Taking and Majoring: Findings from an RCT.” AEA Papers and Proceedings, 112: 597-602.

We implemented an RCT among undergraduate students enrolled in large introductory economics courses at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Two treatment arms provided encouragement to major in economics. A “prosocial” treatment provided information emphasizing the wide variety of career options and personal benefits associated with the major, while an “earnings” treatment provided information on financial returns. We evaluate the effects of the two treatments on subsequent choices to take another economics course and declaration of the economics major by the end of the student’s junior year using student-level matched administrative data. … Our primary aim is to evaluate whether women can be “nudged” into a major with low-cost, theoretically grounded, encouragement/information interventions.

Our primary sample consists of 1,976 students who were freshmen or sophomores during the focal course.

We find that the average male student receiving either treatment is more likely to take at least one more economics course after the focal course, but there is little evidence of increased majoring. The average woman appears unresponsive to either treatment.

Treated women with better than-expected focal-course performance are nudged to take an additional economics course. The likelihood that a woman takes another course in response to treatment increases by 5.6-5.9%-points with a favorable one-third- grade “surprise”. The hypothesis of treatment effects on women’s majoring, mediated or not, is rejected. Men’s susceptibility to treatment is invariant with respect to focal course performance.

Women did not demonstrate a bias towards a pro-social framing, and men did not demonstrate a bias towards a pro-earnings framing.

The pile of null results for messaging, when it is randomly assigned, is growing. It’s good to see null results get published though.

One of my current projects is related, but with a focus on computer programming instead of majoring in economics.

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