Tuesday 11 February 2014

A Turning Point in My Research

It took me six months of researching effective uses of mass communication for changing behaviour to discover the existence of a field called, well, behaviour change communication (BCC).

Ozzie Gooen from 80000 Hours pointed me to an interview with Will Snell of an organization called Development Media International (DMI). I visited the organization's site to find out that they (1) use radio and television programs to promote healthy behaviour in developing nations, (2) that they consider mass media interventions to be the world's most cost-effective cause as measured in DALYs, and (3) that their campaign is evidence-based and well-researched. Their page introduced me to the field of behaviour change communication, which it immediately became clear to me I should have known about back in September.

Upon informing him of my discovery, Brian Tomasik of Animal Ethics pointed me towards an ex-GiveWell recommendation Population Services International. PSI also draws from the BCC literature to support their social marketing work in developing nations. Looking at their web site led me to some of their resources and many useful blogs about social marketing. Considering I've been researching marketing principles that could be applied to create social change, I probably should have been aware there was a field called social marketing.

In my research, I'm again and again finding that one of the most important things you can have is the right name of a field, or at least the right buzzword that gets mentioned in all the papers on that subject. Without knowing what to search for, you can easily get led into dead ends and assume relevant bodies of knowledge don't exist. Once you have the name, Google Scholar is all you need.

To give another example, I was recently asked to write an article for an academic journal about several terms that I was not familiar with. I could find absolutely nothing on either Google or Google Scholar about these terms. After several minutes of annoyed investigating, I discovered the field was called Conversation Analysis (CA). I typed "Conversation Analysis" into Google Scholar and I got tons of useful sources.

Now that I have BCC and social marketing in my arsenal of names, I have a lot more reading to do. Although it's kind of embarrassing to discover after six months that I'd been neglecting the #1 most cost-effective use of media in my thesis paper on the subject, it's also motivating to know that now I'm about to get some answers. I probably spent too much time trying to pioneer an extremely difficult field (optimizing the artistic landscape and, a bit less difficult: journalism, news, and social media) when I knew perfectly well third world interventions had a higher potential utility. What I didn't know was that organizations already existed that were doing this, researching this, and showing good results.

For the next while, I will likely spend less time writing about art, media, and culture on this blog, and spend more time writing about media interventions in the developing world, behaviour change communication, and social marketing.

Lastly, I'd like to point out that my original research question is now answered. At the start of my research, I intended to learn how a media producer could maximize the amount of good they can do in the world with their work. I now have a decently clear answer to that: spread healthy memes in unhealthy countries like DMI and PSI do. I also wondered whether mass media use could be established as a fifth focus area of effective altruism with cost-effectiveness and impact large enough to rival the other four. I can now answer "Yes" to this question, when for the past couple of months my feeling was "No." What's left are the details: learning about which methods are  more effective than others. Based on my preliminary research into BCC, a lot of useful experimental research on these methods has already been published.

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