Our approach to research is distinctive in several respects. First, it is experimental, focusing on the design and conduct of randomized field experiments. Second, it is behavioral, with an emphasis on measuring and changing behavior, rather than inferring it from self-reports. Third, it is grounded in long-term, follow-up designs, rather than short-term assessments only. Fourth, it is dedicated to solving problems, with proactive interventions, rather than interpretive analyses alone.
Campbell says: "[This is] an approach in which we try out new programs designed to cure specific social problems, in which we learn whether or not these programs are effective, and in which we retain, imitate, modify or discard them on the basis of apparent effectiveness..."
Unfortunately a vigorous experimental analysis of this kind has not greatly influenced public policy research. For example, in a recent methodological critique of over 200 valuations of California utilities energy conservation programs White, et al. report that non-experimental surveys predominated with a virtual absence of control groups and random assignment of subjects -- two of the hallmarks of true experimental designs. In contrast, at PPR we believe that an experimental approach is absolutely essential if we expect to deal effectively with many of the issues currently confronting public policy makers.
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For example, we take very seriously the considerable body of knowledge indicating that attitudes and intentions to engage in behavior are not always closely correlated with the actual occurrence of behavior. We are also impressed with the equally numerous unsuccessful attempts to change behavior by focusing on modifying attitudes.
As a case in point consider some recent evidence on the relationship between attitudes and behaviors associated with conserving energy. Even though an individual believes very strongly in the value of conserving energy, it may often times be quite difficult to translate this conviction into specific energy conserving actions. For example, in a television campaign designed to promote gasoline conservation, Syme & colleagues reported that while the campaign increased individual awareness of the need to conserve gasoline, as well as their intentions to save it, the were no demonstrable effects on actual gasoline consumption in the communities they studied. In another experiment on the impact of an information package on electricity conservation Syme et al. also found that self-reported changes in conservation behavior, as well as the number of requests for conservation materials, were not reliable indicators of actual electricity consumption.
Instead PPR's research strategy emphasizes the importance of supplementing self-reports of attitudes and intentions with a range of additional measures. Thus, we place a great deal of emphasis on the direct measurement of multiple behaviors. Although this is relatively time consuming, at PPR we believe the weight of prior research makes it imperative that we do so. A multi-behavioral approach not only provides greater predictive accuracy, but also lays the foundation for more effective interventions.
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For example, perhaps the most serious limitation of incentive-based social programs is that they have almost uniformly failed to produce long-term, enduring changes in behavior. Indeed, once the programs are remove, individuals are quite likely to return to their former patterns of behavior. In attempting to promote resource conservation, for example, most incentive programs have been introduced as temporary measures which are primarily designed as Cone & Hayes have noted "to increase the desired behavior momentarily in order to show patrons the benefits ... so they will continue ... [the behavior] in the future." Although many studies in this area do not report follow-up data which would permit a test of this claim, those that do often find that these early effects do not last very long.
At PPR we believe it is essential to obtain evidence on long term trends in evaluating the effectiveness of any social intervention. Clearly, it is essential to develop programs which insure that the gains produced when they are introduced persist when it is no longer feasible or possible to continue the program. The fact that this does not often occur is distressing to both investigators, who seek programs with robust effects, and to social policy makers, who hope to be able to apply these programs to the population-at-large.
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At PPR our fundamental objective is to answer the question "What can I do?" Our goal is not simply to explain a problem, but to do so in the interest of solving it. we believe that if a problem is truly understood, we ought to be able to demonstrate this by contributing, in some way, to its solution. If this effort fails, it is a sign that we don't clearly understand the phenomenon or else that our explanation is incomplete. Thus, working back and forth between theoretical predictions and applied programs plays a central role in our activities.
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