Applying Behavioral Science in International Development  

Grace Chen, LPS Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences (MBDS), 2023

This summer I had the opportunity to intern at the Center for Utilizing Behavioral Insights for Children (CUBIC) at Save the Children. Founded in 2020 by Allison Zelkowitz, CUBIC is the first applied behavioral science team to focus on the welfare of marginalized children. The team recognizes that human decision-making is a complex process affected by numerous factors. We have limited rationality and scarce mental bandwidth; we rely on heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to make quick decisions, yet they may also lead to sub-optimal results. Therefore, CUBIC seeks to assess challenges that Save the Children is trying to tackle and design interventions through a behavioral lens, bringing new perspectives and potentially cost-effective solutions to the organization.  

I’ve always wanted to apply theories and methods of behavioral science to real-world challenges, and CUBIC’s work is exactly that. One project I was involved aimed to encourage staff of Save the Children to download a newly-launched climate mitigation mobile app. Different framings of email communications were designed to encourage download and usage of the app, each containing some behavioral science concepts. Then, a randomized controlled trial was run to test their effectiveness. Another project was an initiative to encourage adoption of a project management system within Save the Children. Adoption of new software in an organization is never easy, since it takes efforts to form habits and combat procrastination, especially when employees have more important and urgent things on their plates. To overcome these barriers, the team organized a fun competition asking project and awards teams to complete simple tasks with the new system in their day-to-day work.  

Through the internship experience, I realized that the application of behavioral science is extremely broad. Not only can it be applied to benefit people that Save the Children is supporting (projects such as encouraging uptake of childhood immunization and supporting positive parenting), it can be leveraged internally within the organization to boost efficiency and productivity. Moreover, it is essentially a mindset that CUBIC members hold in their day-to-day work and communications to ‘nudge’ their own behaviors as well as that of others.  

Another valuable lesson learned is that unexpected things could occur when applying behavioral science in real-world settings. Your fieldwork partners may not be as familiar as your research design and could miss some steps; your data can be messy; technical issues might happen; uncontrollable factors that may affect outcomes are everywhere. In fact, I came to learn that this is actually not ‘unexpected’, but the ‘norm’ when applying behavioral science in the wild. As a consequence, careful planning and pilot testing is extremely important to minimize risk. Yet even with careful planning, unexpected things still happen, and thus problem-solving skills are also important. I learned a lot from my mentor and colleagues to maintain agile and think of alternative solutions when unexpected challenges happen. 

It is my privilege to work alongside a group of amazing, self-driven behavioral scientists from all over the world, and I look forward to more opportunities to incorporate behavioral science to real world scenarios! 

Note: some LPS students are served by LPS Career Services, a breakdown of services can be found here:

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2023 GAPSA Summer Internship Funding Program that is coordinated by Penn Career Services. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

By Career Services
Career Services