Co-taught by Neil Lewis, Jr., assistant professor of communication, and René Kizilcec, assistant professor of information science, COMM/INFO 4800 is a capstone seminar that combines applied quantitative research methods and social behavioral science theories. Their goal is to help students gain a better understanding of major challenges facing society — including poverty, poor health and educational inequalities — by designing quantitative research projects and discussing the ethics of behavioral science interventions.
How would you describe the course to a friend?
Think about an issue that you care about deeply — healthy eating habits, active political participation, social belonging, or whatever else you are most passionate about. This course allows you to study human behavior and then use what you have learned to tackle that very issue.
Along the way, you’ll learn about how some seemingly invisible forces have been subtly shaping your decisions your entire life, how social science research is done, and then you'll top it all off with a paper that could potentially add to existing knowledge and help solve that real-world problem in the long run. Give it a shot!
What were you looking forward to about taking this class?
During the summer of my sophomore year, I had the opportunity to work in digital advertising where I closely observed how slight tweaks in ads and algorithms influenced purchasing behavior and pushed people to buy products or services from our clients. This was also when I dove deeper into how social media content, through a mix of behavioral science theory and analytics, could potentially alter political outcomes. These experiences led me to believe that it is possible to use similar behavioral science theory and “tweaks” to do social good instead, which is what I was looking forward to learning more in-depth through INFO 4800.
I wanted to study behavioral science phenomena and the psychological fallibilities of humans, and leverage this theory to facilitate socio-economic betterment for different communities. This class did just that - it wrapped up theoretical research and hands-on experiments in a neat bundle that would become one of my favorite classes at Cornell.
Why did you decide to focus on financial literacy?
Only 24% of Millennials demonstrate basic financial literacy, only about a third of Americans maintain a household budget, and around two-thirds of Americans struggle to gather $1,000 in an emergency. These statistics are concerning.
Innumerable programs and campaigns have been launched in recent years to encourage people to think more about their spending habits and save more. My team, however, wanted to approach this problem from a behavioral science perspective — we wanted to nudge people towards higher savings. We are hopeful that our little contribution to this field will add to existing knowledge. Even if we were able to improve financial outcomes for one person, I would consider our work successful.
What did you learn during the study you conducted?
Our study had three major components: a financial literacy test, a financial behavior survey, and a spending simulation and savings intervention. Based on our findings, we concluded that participants who exhibited higher financial literacy, financial awareness, and educational attainment demonstrated both higher savings and spending behavior. Furthermore, female participants tended to save significantly less than their male counterparts. We hope that these results can help drive forward the conversation about systematic variations in how different groups of people approach making financial decisions.
How did this course support your academic goals?
I’ve been fortunate enough to take a wide array of courses at Cornell, ranging from quantitative courses to traditional social science courses, but COMM/INFO 4800 synthesized these two well in a truly unique fashion. It helped me better understand how theory and research could be applied in the real world (that too within a single, extraordinarily unusual, semester).
How have your classmates and your professors helped support you?
With two professors and 24 students divided into eight groups, the class was sure a pleasant anomaly from my otherwise large lectures. Prof. Kizilcec and Prof. Lewis, Jr. always ensured there was enough time for discussion and reflection, and both were great resources — in and out of class. Even if I needed feedback for a personal project, they took out the time to help out and nudge me in the right direction. This did not change despite the sudden shift to virtual instruction.
My classmates really helped create an intellectually stimulating environment by asking the tough questions and engaging consistently. Specifically, the peer reviews for our research papers were invaluable.
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