MDRC Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS)


Policymakers and administrators are increasingly using evidence about human behavior to improve the design of social services. People — who often rely on intuition instead of reason, make inconsistent choices over time, and can be overloaded by information — are the clients who receive services, the staff who provide them, and the policymakers who create them. Behavioral science demonstrates that even small hassles can create significant barriers that prevent those in need of services from receiving them.

The MDRC Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS) is a new initiative that combines MDRC’s expertise in social programs with insights from behavioral science. Projects that are affiliated with CABS develop innovative, low-cost interventions to improve the effectiveness of social programs and the experiences of the families and individuals receiving these services. Interventions are based on research from behavioral science, including behavioral economics, social psychology, cognitive psychology, and organizational behavior. Problems tackled by the Center address relevant policies in human services programs, educational settings, and employment training programs. Using a diagnostic methodology to identify opportunities most amenable to light-touch, high-impact interventions, CABS designs interventions and tests their impact through experimentation and provides technical assistance to social service agencies implementing such approaches.

For more information, contact [email protected].              

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Agenda, Scope, and Goals

MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS) incorporates behavioral strategies into social programs to learn what works to improve program outcomes. Behavioral science sheds light on human decision-making and behavior to better understand how and why people make the choices that they do. Insights from the field are currently being applied to a diverse set of problems and contexts, and the application to social programs is a growing trend in public policy. MDRC has abundant expertise working within complex government agencies and programs. Since our founding more than 40 years ago, we have played a unique role in designing promising new interventions, improving existing programs, conducting rigorous evaluations, and providing technical assistance to build stronger programs and deliver effective interventions at scale. MDRC is known for mounting large-scale demonstrations and evaluations of real-world policies and programs serving low-income people. Interventions designed under the Center contribute to and improve other MDRC initiatives, enhancing the likelihood of finding cost-effective solutions to the most pressing issues.

CABS projects are based on detailed descriptions of how people actually behave in the real world, opposed to how people “should” behave. For example, people are likely to choose the path of least resistance, have shifting preferences, and are often not realistic with their timelines for getting things done. One study conducted by MDRC, as part of the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency project, incorporated a plan-making device that encouraged participants to write down when and how they intended to complete a task, which led to more people completing the action.

Recognizing these human tendencies, and developing interventions that account for them, may ultimately improve the programs MDRC works with that serve low-income and at-risk populations. Problems undertaken by CABS are identified through an exploration phase, in partnership with a program or agency, and then addressed by applying behavioral insights. Many behavioral strategies can be implemented within the current environment of government cutbacks and limited budgets for strategic improvements because they are low-cost and reasonably straightforward to implement. Interventions under the Center are evaluated to determine if they are effective at addressing the given issue.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

MDRC has developed and continues to evolve a well-tested process for identifying and designing behavioral interventions, developing rigorous research designs, and conducting analysis and reporting — all at a relatively low cost. With both the experience and aptitude to implement rigorous and iterative behavioral projects, we analyze near-term outcomes, such as program participation rates, which are quickly available and of interest to practitioners and administrators implementing social programs.

Many projects under CABS are evaluated using rigorous research methods that include random assignment. Several cases include rapid-cycle evaluation, where initial analyses of findings from one round of testing quickly informs a next round of experimentation. The Center also provides agencies with advice and technical assistance to build better programs and design effective interventions, as well as providing knowledge-building and educational trainings to practitioners to apply techniques to their current and future initiatives.

MDRC engages in various domains, including welfare-to-work programs, child care and early education programs, public school and higher education reforms, initiatives to raise the income of low-wage workers, interventions for at-risk teenagers and returning veterans, and employment programs for ex-prisoners and people with disabilities. CABS projects span the range of content areas that MDRC works within. The following projects are currently affiliated with the Center:

  • Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS), a project that applies behavioral insights to the operations, implementation, and structure of social service programs and policies in an attempt to improve their efficacy. Funded by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS), designed to improve the effectiveness and operations of child support programs and expand the application of behavioral economics to child support contexts through the development of promising interventions. Funded by the Office of Child Support Enforcement, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency-Next Generation (BIAS-NG), an initiative that builds on the original BIAS project to include a wider range of human services programs, go beyond testing simple “nudges,” and develop tools to help program administrators apply lessons from behavioral science to their work. Funded by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Nudges to Increase Customer Engagement (NICE) in Child Support Programs, an effort to increase noncustodial parents’ engagement in child support order establishment procedures. Funded by the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity.
  • Building Bridges and Bonds (B3), a study of the impacts and implementation of specific elements of programs that support fathers’ efforts to improve their economic well-being, parenting, and family relationships. Funded by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Kansas Child Support Savings Initiative, an incentive program intended to increase and regularize child support payments by offering to reduce noncustodial parents’ arrears by matching funds noncustodial parents deposit in a state-sponsored college savings plan. Funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
  • Paycheck Plus Demonstration, a demonstration to evaluate whether offering single tax filers in New York City a larger earned income tax credit (EITC)-like earnings supplement improves their economic well-being and encourages employment. Funded by New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity and the Robin Hood Foundation.
  • The Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment (EASE) Project, a demonstration project that will apply insights from behavioral science to design targeted messaging and financial incentives to encourage community college students to enroll in courses during the summer term. Funded by the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation.
  • The Finish Line: Graduation by Design, a project that will develop innovative and untried solutions to improve college completion rates using behavioral insights, build capacity within institutions to diagnose and evaluate their problems, and share behavioral insights and lessons with the broader higher education community. Funded by the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and Affiliates.
  • The Applied Behavioral Coalition (ABC), a project that partners with nonprofit organizations serving vulnerable and at-risk populations to build each organization’s foundation in behavioral science and human-centered design principles. Funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.