Behavioral Science May Prove to Be Our Most Important Science

We take for granted the impact of the physical and biological sciences on our world, forgetting that it once took months to get from the east coast to the west coast or to communicate with someone across the ocean.
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Science has changed our world. We take for granted the impact of the physical and biological sciences on our world, forgetting that it once took months to get from the East coast to the West coast or to communicate with someone across the ocean. Science has dramatically improved our health too. In nineteenth century England more than 100,000 people died of cholera before John Snow showed that contaminated water was the cause of cholera.

It might seem that no such stunning changes are possible when it comes to human behavior. We continue to have significant problems with crime, drug abuse, depression, academic failure, and poverty. Reading the headlines, you might think that we have made no progress on these problems and that no change is possible.

But you would be wrong. A great deal of progress has taken place on how we can treat and prevent these problems and it is this science that has the potential to enhance human wellbeing far beyond the physical sciences.

If you are unaware of the progress of the behavioral sciences, it is because progress is relatively recent and because the policies and programs that can prevent or ameliorate these problems are not yet in widespread use. We are on the cusp of a revolution in the use of behavioral science that will improve the wellbeing of people in ways that will prove as dramatic as the changes we have seen in medicine, physics, and chemistry.

The Institute of Medicine's report on prevention put it this way: "The scientific foundation has been created for the nation to begin to create a society in which young people arrive at adulthood with the skills, interests, assets, and health habits needed to live healthy, happy, and productive lives in caring relationships with others."

The report showed that over the past 40 years, behavioral scientists have developed preventive interventions for every phase of development -- from the prenatal period through adolescence. Numerous programs for families and schools have been shown, through rigorous randomized trials, to prevent multiple problems among young people. Most of these interventions continue to prevent problems long after the program has ended. And most save far more money in reduced criminal justice, victim, special education, and healthcare costs than it takes to deliver them.

At the same time, behavioral scientists have identified an array of policies that are beneficial in preventing problems like alcohol-related injuries and adolescent smoking initiation.

Similar progress has been made in how to treat people who have problems. Steve Hayes has written on this site about many of the interventions that are revolutionizing clinical psychology.

Simply reading the research won't bring you in contact with the children and adults whose lives are changing for the better. For example, the Nurse Family Partnership has proven benefit in helping poor, at-risk mothers during their first pregnancy and the first two years of their babies' lives. It has already reached more than 200,000 mothers. It has helped women like Shanice by providing a caring, knowledgeable nurse to help her get the social and medical support she needed during her pregnancy and to guide her in how to care for her infant. In the first evaluation of this program, 35% of the children who didn't get the program were arrested by the age of fifteen, but among those who were in the program, fewer than half as many were arrested. Think what the impact of that may have been among the more than 200,000 families that benefited from this program.

Or consider the Good Behavior Game, which is increasingly being used in schools throughout North America. It helps children learn to cooperate and concentrate. Small teams of students earn simple rewards, such as a chance to dance or make funny noises after they have worked together successfully for short periods. A study of the Good Behavior Game done at John Hopkins University showed that young people who played the Game in just first or second grade were less likely to be arrested or to smoke by middle school. By the time they were entering adulthood, those who got the Good Behavior Game had less suicidal behavior and drug abuse and were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. The game changes lives.

The widespread implementation of the programs, policies, and practices that behavioral scientists have developed can have significant benefit for millions of Americans. But we will not achieve all of the improvements in human wellbeing that are possible unless we also reduce poverty and economic inequality. The U. S. has the highest level of child poverty of any developed nation. This is because in the past half century public policy has evolved in a direction that most of us didn't want it to go.

Before John Snow showed that contaminated water caused cholera, raw sewage emptied into the Thames upstream from the intake of drinking water. Now such unsanitary conditions would be unthinkable. I look forward to the day when it will be unthinkable to allow a child to live in an environment that fails to nurture their development.

In my next post, I will tell you what the key ingredients are in these effective programs and how the science of human behavior can help us evolve a more nurturing form of capitalism.

Anthony Biglan is a Senior Scientist at Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Oregon and author of the forthcoming book, The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World.

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