Keeping Up With Control

Scientific research assures the world of causality with the aphorism that the results were generated in a “controlled” setting. When medical researchers test drugs or behavior on lab mice, they measure their diet, their sleep patterns, their activity levels, as well as treatment dosage. Petri dish specimens get to marinate at length in climate-controlled conditions, and make-up finds itself on blushing bunnies. Mimicking scientifically controlled systems in human behavioral research in the social sciences sets up a task that really throws caution to the wind over the possibility of extraneous factors coming by for casual contamination. Somehow, somewhere, psychologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, and other social scientists alike decided to bring the controlled setting of rodents in cages to towns and homes to study if bed nets can reduce incidents of malaria.

Malaria bed nets (picture source: GEN news, 2019)

There’s always a risk of something, or everything, getting contaminated when a controlled experiment involves hundreds of people in a bustling urban environment. My research interest includes studying the effects of behavioral interventions such as cash transfers and phone nudges: both commodities that can easily be shared, distributed, lost, mismanaged and/or ignored. Seeking to understand the effectiveness of a minor injection of money or motivation into a household is like walking the tightrope of controlling for various extraneous factors, and managing to disentangle cause and effect in the neuro-cognitive correlates of socioeconomic status.

With the added complication of capturing amorphous social constructs in developing societies (see my previous blog post: Classifying the unclassified), social and controlled experiments mimicking the lab in the neighborhood really do deserve more attention, as well as acclaim, for the unlocked difficulty level.

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About Anahita Kumar

I'm a PhD student at Penn GSE in the Human Development and Quantitative Methods Division. I research behavioral interventions such as cash transfers and phone-based nudges, parent engagement and decision-making, household stress, child labour practices, and children's learning environments, in India, Côte d'Ivoire, and Ghana.