Working Papers

“Intervention Externalities due to Limited Attention” (October 2019), Job Market Paper

The potential welfare benefits of motivating people to vaccinate their children, consume healthy foods, or use clean cookstoves are enormous. Recent research has uncovered many interventions that cost-effectively improve such behaviors, as well as many that do not. But most research evaluates one intervention in isolation on target outcomes. As such, we have little understanding of how interventions might interact with one another, or whether they generate spillovers to other behaviors. This paper explores the hypothesis that behavior change interventions might generate negative externalities due to limited attention. I propose a simple framework, focusing on three types of limited attention that have distinct policy implications. I test the predictions of the model using an online experiment in which individuals receive combinations of messages and incentives for two healthy behaviors, meditation and meal tracking, which are measured daily via phone applications. I find that messaging and incentive interventions generate negative spillovers of 2.8 and 2.4 percentage points on base rates of 9.4 and 11.8 for meditation and meal tracking, respectively. Estimating the parameters of the model reveals that effective interventions do not necessarily generate larger negative spillovers than ineffective interventions, all else being equal. Specifically, suppose a low-effectiveness intervention (0.2 SDs) is scaled so that, in the absence of spillovers, it is equally cost-effective to a high-effectiveness intervention (1 SD). In the presence of spillovers driven by limited attention of the observed type, the former intervention is predicted to cost 28% more than the latter. Thus, for policymakers who care about multiple outcomes, small-scale, highly-effective interventions may be preferable to large-scale, less effective ones, once spillovers are taken into account.

“Unpacking a Multi-Faceted Program to Build Sustainable Income for the Very Poor” (February 2018) with Abhijit Banerjee, Dean Karlan, Chris Udry, NBER Working Paper No. 24271

A multi-faceted program comprising a grant of productive assets, training, coaching, and savings has been found to build sustainable income for those in extreme poverty. We focus on two important questions: whether a mere grant of productive assets would generate similar impacts (it does not), and whether access to a savings account and a deposit collection service would generate similar impacts (it does not).


“Avoiding the Ask: A Field Experiment on Altruism, Empathy, and Charitable Giving” with James Andreoni and Justin M. Rao, Journal of Political Economy, 2017.

If people enjoy giving, then why do they avoid fund-raisers? Partnering with the Salvation Army at Christmastime, we conducted a randomized field experiment placing bell ringers at one or both main entrances to a supermarket, making it easy or difficult to avoid the ask. Additionally, bell ringers either were silent or said “please give.” Making avoidance difficult increased both the rate of giving and donations. Paradoxically, the verbal ask dramatically increased giving but also led to dramatic avoidance. We argue that this illustrates sophisticated awareness of the empathy-altruism link: people avoid empathic stimulation to regulate their giving and guilt.

“Fair Weather Avoidance: Unpacking the Costs and Benefits of `Avoiding the Ask’” with James Andreoni, Justin Rao, Andrew Steinkruger, Mackenzie Wood, Adam Wooster, and James J. Murphy, Journal of the Economic Science Association, 2015.

If being asked to give to charity stimulates an emotional response, like empathy, that makes giving difficult to resist, a natural self-control mechanism might be to avoid being asked in the first place. We replicate a result from a field experiment that points to the role of empathy in giving. We conduct an experiment in a large superstore in which we solicit donations to charity and randomly allow shoppers the opportunity to avoid solicitation by using the other door. We find the rate of avoidance by store entrants to be 8.9 %. However, we also find that the avoidance effect disappears in very cold weather, suggesting that avoidance behavior is sensitive to its cost.

Work in Progress

“Employing the Poor in Ghana: Investigating Rural Labor Markets” with Abhijit Banerjee, Dean Karlan, Chris Udry

“Heterogeneity in Crowd-Out of Charitable Giving: Evidence from a Large International Giving Platform” with Ro’ee Levy