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Behavior Change for Good Newsletter

It’s easy to feel helpless right now. Many of us are stuck at home, those who aren't are constantly in harm's way, and there’s bad news everywhere you look. As scientists dedicated to using our skills for good, we’ve sought out ways to help with the COVID-19 crisis. This edition of our newsletter describes BCFG’s COVID-19 efforts, highlights relevant writing by team scientists, and shares BCFG resources for navigating these uncertain times. 

In the last month, here are a few things we’ve done to be of service to the global community:

  • We launched a series of new, digital interventions to help thousands of Penn students cope with the crisis and thrive in a distance learning environment.
  • We tapped our scientific team to provide guidance to health system leaders on questions like how to promote social distancing in hospitals and how to help health care workers preserve their limited supplies of personal protective equipment. 
  • In partnership with Innovations for Poverty Action and team scientists Dean Karlan and Mike Luca, we’ve developed strategies for communicating about social distancing and handwashing to test in developing countries where COVID-19 is just beginning to spread.
  • Katy contributed to team teaching a new 2,000-person online course at Wharton about the economic implications of the coronavirus and shared insights on how to promote behavior change for good in the face of the pandemic.

BCFG remains eager to find more ways that our talented team of 100+ behavioral scientists can be of service as the world faces unprecedented challenges. We are in conversation with numerous potential partners about new COVID-facing projects. If you have ideas about how we could help address pressing pandemic-related problems, please contact us here.
In these turbulent times, we are especially grateful for your interest in changing behavior for good. And we hope that you and your loved ones are staying safe and well.

With Grit and Gratitude,

Katy Milkman and Angela Duckworth
Co-Directors of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative

BCFG Mega-Study on Encouraging Vaccine Uptake

With a race underway to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine, the Fall 2020 influenza season presents an invaluable opportunity to test new methods for encouraging influenza vaccination. Flu shot persuasion studies run in fall 2020 should produce findings that can inform efforts to encourage adoption of a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available.  
In partnership with the Penn Medicine Nudge Unit, BCFG will be conducting a “mega-study” testing at least 20 behavioral science strategies designed by our talented team of behavioral science experts to increase flu vaccination rates. We will be partnering with two of the largest health systems in the Mid-Atlantic on this project. To our knowledge this will be the largest study of its kind investigating how to encourage vaccination uptake and we hope the findings will make an important contribution to the COVID-19 response.

Spotlight: Q&A on Maintaining Well-being during COVID-19 with Angela Duckworth and Katy Milkman


Katy recently delivered a lecture to over 2,000 Penn students about how behavioral science can inform responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this effort, Katy interviewed Angela about how insights from research can help us maintain our emotional well-being during this challenging period. Below is an edited excerpt from the interview.

Milkman: I want to focus today on those of us who are lucky to be safe and secure and are coping with a new ordinary, and a new ordinary set of challenges, like how to stay productive and upbeat when we're working from home. What advice would you offer people who are struggling to form new and effective work routines from home?

Duckworth: Well, my particular challenge is that my back hurts. I've been somebody who spent a lot of time in front of a keyboard, in front of a monitor. So, I had adjusted my lifestyle a little bit. But now I'm not walking to work, and, I feel like the number of video calls tripled. I was wondering what I could do about it and I was talking to a friend who said, "I'm taking all of my meetings that don't require me to be literally looking at a spreadsheet or editing a document, I’m taking them all walking."

And I thought to myself, my gosh, it's a great idea. And I know you and I both think that copying and pasting strategies that friends, or anybody that we see honestly who's been successful, is such a great way to be. So, I have copy/pasted that and it's working. My back hurts less. I think asking our closest acquaintances what they're doing and then doing it yourself - that's the meta strategy for success in life and that includes now.  

Milkman: The second thing I wanted to talk about is what people can do for their mental health at this stressful and frankly lonely time.

Duckworth: I think the most reliable predictor of happiness is close personal relationships. The more people you have, with full confidence, that you feel connected to, that they know what's going on in your life, the happier you are.
And the opposite of that is loneliness. And loneliness is maybe the largest negative predictor of feeling happy with your overall life. So, what do you do now when so many of us are in physical isolation? I think the point that's been made by others, but I will just reaffirm it, is that social distancing is probably not the right term. It really should just be physical distancing.

I know social media has been, maybe rightly, criticized over the last few years about its negative effects. But here is one thing that I think we should all be grateful for; without the Internet, without technology and without these ways of connecting with each other virtually, I think we'd be much worse off.

Milkman: I also want to acknowledge that a lot of people were working towards big goals before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are now faced with this new stumbling block in light of what's going on. I wanted to ask you what advice you would have for people who are facing new roadblocks to achieving whatever it is they've set out to achieve as a result of their new circumstances.

Duckworth: Right before the pandemic really became a kind of conscious reality in the United States, and right before spring break for Penn, I assigned in my undergraduate class an eight-week passion project. Well, then a lot happened and so many of my students wrote to me and said, "My eight-week passion project was going to be to volunteer in a hospital, I think I might want to have a career in health or medicine. I guess that's not happening. What do I do?" 

I can't answer what specifically each individual student should do now that this big goal has been made impossible, literally impossible, for so many students.

But I can give them the general direction that when we have any project, no matter how big, there is always an even bigger question or concern or purpose for that project. What were you trying to do in those eight weeks?

So I’m not saying it's easy, but I do think that every big goal has an even bigger goal. And when you go up a layer in your goal hierarchy and you say, "What's above this goal? What was the point of this?" It does give you the flexibility, I think, to back up and then to move forward in a new direction.

To learn more, watch the full interview.

Popular Press Articles from BCFG Team Scientists about the COVID-19 Crisis 

BCFG Team Scientists have written a number of valuable articles in the popular press about everything from how to help small businesses survive the crisis to how to avoid touching your face.  Below are links to some terrifically thoughtful articles that bring a behavioral science lens to combating this crisis. If you are a BCFG researcher who has written about COVID-19 for the public, please share your article with us. Find us on Twitter @ChangeBcfg and use #BCFGTeamScientist to get our attention, or email us

And if you’re trying to publish something, or you’re thinking about it, we can help: email Dave Nussbaum and mention that you’re a BCFG affiliate; he can help you with the writing and pitching process.


Special Edition COVID-19 Podcasts from Team Scientists

Choiceology with Katy Milkman: Coping Amid the Crisis

Katy Milkman talks with Team Scientist Laurie Santos about how behavioral science can help us maintain our emotional well-being during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Happiness Lab with Laurie Santos: Keep Your Relationships Healthy

Team Scientist Laurie Santos talks with Team Scientist Eli Finkel about ways we can keep our romantic relationships strong while being stuck in close quarters in  Episode 6 of The Happiness Lab: Coronavirus Bonus series.

Work Life with Adam Grant: We Don't Have to Fight Loneliness Alone

Team Scientist Adam Grant talks about ways we can help fight loneliness in this time of pandemic, and beyond, with just a few small changes.

Coming Soon - The BCFG Summer Newsletter!

Look for our next BCFG Newsletter this summer featuring an update about this year’s BCFG events, Team Scientists Michael Luca and Max Bazerman’s new book The Power of Experiments, and much more!

Until then, stay well.


About BCFG

The Behavior Change for Good Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania is co-led by Psychology Professor Angela Duckworth and Wharton Professor Katy Milkman. BCFG unites a world-class, interdisciplinary team of academic experts with leading organizational partners to advance the science and practice of behavior change.

We’re always interested in hearing about new areas to explore and potential collaborations. Contact us anytime.

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