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“The fact that giving people information does not, by itself, change how they act is one of the most firmly established in social science.” So stated a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. That’s not true. Here are ten examples where simply providing information changed behavior:
Giving information to communities in Uganda about the size of grants that their schools were supposed to be receiving from the central government led to more money reaching the schools and—ultimately—higher student enrollment and test scores.
In Kenya, giving teenage girls information on how the risk of HIV infection varied by the age of their partner led to a 28 percent fall in adolescent pregnancies.
Therearemore. Information by itself certainly won’t always change behavior. Providing U.S. students with information about the tax credits for college had no impact on college enrollment. The author of the op-ed that I quoted above provided other examples. Sometimes, a program that was effective in one place isn’t in another. The program described above that gave HIV risk information to teens in Kenya had no clear impact when implemented in Botswana.
But to dismiss the overall power of information is a grave mistake. Informational interventions are often low-cost. One of the U.S. interventions above cost a total of US$63 to send 32,000 text messages. When people genuinely have limited information, when the information is on a topic that they care about, and when they have the power to act on the information they receive—as was the case in all ten examples above—providing that information can make a substantive difference.