We academics can best do research that creates a better world if we are scientists and not advocates; advocates are not trusted. Because of this, aiming for the goal of social well-being can be harmful to the impact of our research because people don’t trust experts who have a clear advocacy. Instead, we can conduct broadly accessible research that helps people to understand the context by providing facts and concepts for others to interpret. Further, we can work with practitioners and policy makers to ensure that our research has an impact.
In my own research at the Center for Research on Consumer Financial Decision Making, we study savings, investing household debt, financial planning, health insurance, and financial literacy. Our research in these areas has the potential to create a better world, but it’s critical to involve practitioners if we are going to do so.
One example of when we were able to successfully do this is in the domain of financial literacy. In 2010, I was at the NEFE Quarter Century conference when John Gannon of FINRA said, “Given mixed evidence of effects of financial education on financial behavior and cost considerations, maybe now is not the time to continue to press for state mandates to require high school financial education courses.” While the audience gasped, I nodded along and said it makes sense. The implicit model is that people can retrieve financial knowledge learned months or years prior when the time comes for them to make a financial decision. However, we decided to do a piece of research that examined whether this was, in fact, true. We did a meta-analysis of past research and found that this is not the case. After a delay, we found that even long interventions have no significant influence on behavior.
Beyond presenting these findings in typical academic talks, we circulated it to key players in NEFE orbit, including government. We went to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, had a private dinner with the treasury, and Richard Thaler even wrote a New York Times column on the findings. As a result, our view has broadly been adopted by the CFPB, and now they push for just-in-time financial education.
If you’re trying to have a big impact on the world, it helps to be involved with the practitioner community. Attend conferences that bring academics and practitioners together. Hang around with other academics who actually care about knowledgeable practitioners in industry, government, and consumer advocacy. Moreover, look for further ways to apply your insights.Download Presentation
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