How ‘Nudge-able’ is the Arab World?: Applying Behavioral Interventions Cross-Culturally

Sunday, February 24, 2013
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In our previous post on Unequal Labor Market Distribution of Youth in the Arab World we looked at an example of applying a behavioral intervention to influence youth career choice in Gulf countries. While consumer behavior and decision sciences literature in the US and Europe has shown that prompting respondents to rank their values prior to making decisions can yield positive results in terms of post-decision satisfaction and lower levels of regret, asking youth in the Gulf countries to rank attribute values that they consider important when making career choices prior to choosing a career path was not as positively influential as Western literature suggests.

Our research findings suggest that behavioral interventions on career choices of youth in the Gulf decrease the likelihood that they will choose career disciplines characterized by labor market gaps or which are outside traditional career disciplines. This finding illustrates that behavioral interventions that seek to influence career choice of youth in the Gulf may be less effective due to students being unaccustomed to considering values when making career decisions, a finding that has also been demonstrated by previous research in the Arab World (IFC, 2011).

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Looking more closely at the assumptions on which behavioral interventions are designed can potentially reveal the extent to which such interventions or ‘nudges’ for improving decision quality are applicable in the Arab region. Thaler and Sunstein (2008) describe behavioral interventions or ‘nudges’ as ‘any aspect of choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives’. Their notion that people are ‘nudge-able’ is primarily based on the assumption that human nature often prompt individuals to follow heuristics in decision making that may lead to biases and errors. Heuristics, or rules of thumbs, are adopted by humans because they cost less time and effort and seem much more convenient given our ‘bounded rationality’ and selective attention. Kahneman and Tversky (1973) explain how heuristics such as anchoring, availability heuristics, framing effects, and higher sensitivities to losses than gains, may lead to judgment errors or biases that distort decision making processes and yield sub-optimal outcomes.

A major weakness in behavior intervention literature is the assumption that heuristics used to make decisions are similar across cultures. Cultural differences are often overlooked in designing behavioral interventions (Levinson and Peng, 2006). While some heuristics may be universal (for instance, our study showed a similar tendency of Arab youth, as is common amongst youth elsewhere, to stick to prevalently chosen and socially acceptable career disciplines given the increased perceived accountability associated with the decision (Dolan et al., 2010), studies show that not of all them are. The belief of one’s ability to influence events, risk tolerance, honoring of sunk costs, probability judgments, and cultural dimensions listed by Hofestede (2001) such as uncertainty avoidance (Keil et al., 2000) can all influence heuristics applied career decision making.

The need for further research into behavioral interventions and measures that would be more effective, familiar, and meaningful to youth in the Arab world is evident in order to promote socially optimal career decisions amongst Arab youth. Such work must be accompanied by the development of a behavioral model to ensure cultural variation is accounted for rather than treated as statistical noise (Levinson and Ping, 2006). At the same time, exploring the applicability of career guidance behavioral interventions and their pre-requisites in the Arab region and cultures other than the West would help in understanding the origin of biases. Exploring why biases or nudges are not as effective  in influencing career decisions of Arab youth as elsewhere may provide a different approach for exploring solutions that persuade Arab youth to enter career fields which face skills shortages and new and emerging fields which may not have the same level of social acceptability as more traditional career tracks.

Khamael Al Safi Khamael Al Safi

Khamael Al Safi specializes in the analysis and design of innovative organizational practices, and the development of tools and approaches for the governance of organizations and markets. Khamael has worked for the people and knowledge development functions of several organizations specialized in financial services, non-profit education and media and publishing. She has a particular interest in the role of behavioral decision making in human and organizational development and has focused her recent research on career choices of youth in the Gulf Arab world. She is a recent graduate of the London School of Economics where she studied for a MSc in Organisations and Governance.

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