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  • Discipline(s): Psychology
  • Available: Fall Semester Spring Semester
  • Course Type: Community-Based Courses
  • Taught in: English
  • Credits: 3
  • Course Travel: Yes

PSYC 450: The Science of Behavioral Change: A Community-Based Approach

Note: This course was formerly PYIR 450.

Course Description
Psychologists and economists have joined forces in the last three to four decades to find a ‘new’ field with the name ‘behavioral economics’ or ‘behavioral science.’ This field has provided an understanding of how people’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings deviate from the “optimal” and the consequences of such deviations. This course is devoted to understanding the nature, causes, implications, and applications of these deviations and how they can inform the design and development of interventions to help people do, think, and feel better.

Two research projects will be pursued throughout the semester. All projects are continuations of those from previous semesters and were created, hosted, and advanced by Umbra Institute professors, students, and staff.

One project is internal and includes Umbra faculty, staff, and students:

SoloItaliano – Umbra students will communicate only in Italian for 48 hours. The goal of this project is to understand the experience of non-native Italian speakers before, during, and after their participation in SoloItaliano.

One project is external:

CIDIS – a local non-profit that works with political refugees. The goal of this project is to understand better the narrative of asylum seekers and political refugees.

In order to help create a positive impact, students will use field research methods to understand and evaluate an area in need of improvement and test possible solutions for that area. Field research projects involve actively going out into the community and requires: talking with partners to identify an area in need of improvement; coming up with a method to understand and evaluate an area in need of improvement (or test possible solutions); collecting and analyzing data (with the professor’s help); interpreting the results; and presenting the results to the community partner, collaborators, and the science community at large. Research projects are collaborative; students are responsible for their contribution, which culminates in original findings that are explained in a group research presentation, one is given to our external partner and the other is part of the Special Academic events week

Course Objectives

This course helps students broaden their cultural perspectives by seeing what is/is not universal across cultures in a concrete way. In this process, students will understand that research can be of value to academics as well as non-academics.

The central course objective is for students to improve their ability to help design interventions that create positive impact – by improving individual and societal well-being. It accomplishes this by focusing on how to leverage insights about human decision-making to develop interventions.

There are two secondary objectives for this class. First, this course will help students better understand the science of how humans make judgments and decisions. The class will review research on human thinking from social psychology, cognitive psychology, political science, organizational behavior, decision science, and economics. Students will learn how randomized experiments work and why they are critical for making inferences about causal relationships. Second, this course will improve the quality of students’ own judgments and decisions. People typically “just think” about situations for which some data or casual observations exist. They tend to make serious inferential errors, and, in turn, these lead to systematically biased decisions. The class will study some errors that are particularly important for real world problems and look for easy-to-implement solutions.

By the end of this course, you will have:

  • a heightened awareness of cultural differences;
  • gained new knowledge of aligned fields like behavioral sciences, psychology, philosophy, decision-making, marketing, etc.;
  • taken initiative to develop a set of collaborative research projects with community partners;
  • integrated theory with practice, appreciating how research can help us understand and influence people’s lives; and
  • expanded their career-relevant experiences in research, collaborative work, and community engagement.

Course Materials
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.
Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Basic Books.