Tapping the power of evidence-based messaging
Name: Matthew Clark
Title: Program Manager
City: Durham, N.C.
When Durham won $1 million through the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge in 2018, the idea was to use insights from behavioral science to “nudge” commuters away from driving solo to and from work. Then COVID-19 came along—and suddenly, workers whose jobs allowed teleworking didn’t have to commute at all.
Matthew Clark is managing all the necessary pivots. One was to make sure that Durham’s biggest alternative to driving—riding the bus—is as safe as possible. He and scientists from Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight devised an experiment. At high-traffic bus stops, “transit wellness ambassadors” looked out for bus riders who were wearing masks properly—and walked up to thank them for keeping the community safe. Mask compliance was already high, Clark said, but it edged up even further on routes where these ambassadors were out reinforcing good behaviors.
“It is remarkable how much messaging, framing, and language itself can influence behavior,” Clark said, noting that the stern language government tends to use around mandates tends not to work. “The research indicates that when you use certain messages or certain frames of messaging, people are more likely to respond in a positive way.”
Clark, who previously taught philosophy at a college in South Carolina, is preparing for more experiments with his colleagues at Duke. One of them will test ways to help teleworkers sustain a work-from-home, less-driving lifestyle by pulsing supportive messages through platforms like Teams, Zoom, and Slack. The messages might remind workers to clock out at 5 p.m., for example, or offer tips for organizing their workspace. The experiment will start with Durham city employees.
“Don’t underestimate the power of language framing and the right kind of marketing,” Clark said. “When science and policy meet, it’s pretty cool.”
Pro Tip: “Some of the most impactful solutions to the challenges we face are cheap or free. It doesn’t cost any more out of your marketing budget to tweak the language in a way that has been demonstrated to work better.”