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How can the MA program in Behavioral Economics help mitigate COVID-19 spread?

Behavioral economics in times of crisis

Dr. Guy Hochman, head of the MA program in Behavioral Economics at IDC
Dr. Guy Hochman, head of the MA program in Behavioral Economics at IDC

Human behavior plays a major role in any crisis. In times of the coronavirus pandemic, this becomes all the more important, as mitigating the spread of the virus requires people to act against their natural inclinations.

Keeping social distancing instead of meeting our loved ones; elbow- or fist-bumping instead of a good old-fashioned handshake; standing in line outside of empty retail stores. These major societal challenges underscore the need for a better understanding of how people act and how to nudge them to behave in a way that will benefit society. And this is exactly what behavioral economics in general, and the MA program in Behavioral Economics at IDC Herzliya specifically, do.

So how can behavioral economics help in times of coronavirus? Behavioral economics is an emerging field of research that combines economics and psychology insights to better understand human nature. Based on this understanding, behavioral economics develops practical tools and behavioral interventions to influence people’s behaviors. These include subtle changes in the environment, like the social distancing floor decal stickers used in grocery stores to encourage costumers to keep their distance while standing in line and “wear-a-mask” reminders in crowded streets and stores.

Students in the program receive a strong theoretical background in economics and psychology theory and learn practical behavioral economics aimed at improving decision-making processes. The program’s socially oriented nature allows its faculty members and students to get involved and respond to the strong need to formulate social policies and interventions and help individuals and governments better manage the coronavirus crisis.

For example, in the first wave of the spread of COVID-19, several students from the program were involved in several research projects that I led to encourage healthy behaviors. As a case in point, Rinat Ghelibter, Roy Fadida, and Dor Shlenger, three students from the first class of the program, led a two-week intervention study together with me to examine simple messages to encourage handwashing. The results of these projects inform policymakers in designing simple messaging campaigns to promote healthy and presumably life-saving behaviors.

The challenges individuals and organizations face due to the COVID-19 crisis are vast. The MA program in behavioral economics encourages and facilitates initiatives both from students and faculty members to address these challenges. Under the faculty members’ guidance, students get hands-on experience in behavioral interventions and projects that help people face the social and economic disruptions of the virus and manage a safe return to normal life.

In May 2020, students from the program had the chance to help Prof. Shahar Ayal and me plan several unique workshops designed to give preschool teachers and parents practical tools to deal with the aftermath of the crisis. During the practicum in the second year of the program, teams of students help actual organizations face key behavioral challenges. Thus, the MA program in behavioral economics responds to the strong need to formulate and enact social policies and interventions to motivate and sustain healthy and life-saving behavior to address the challenges of COVID-19.

Dr. Hochman holds a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and serves as the head of the MA program in Behavioral Economics at IDC. He is an expert in decision-making and applied research in behavioral economics with over a decade of experience. Dr. Hochman uses behavioral insights to understand individual decision-making processes and help people make better decisions.

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