The national need to improve “prosperity and welfare” in the mission statement for the National Science Foundation (NSF) covers a wide range of issues that are of concern to U.S. citizens and that affect the well-being of the nation. Many of these have been the topic of social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) research, such as safe and secure neighborhoods,49 crime,50,51 parenting,52 education,53,54 the economy, and financial well-being. Four examples are described in this section.
Despite the rise of 401(k) and related investments that allow individuals to save through tax-deferred pension plans, employers found that surprisingly few of their eligible employees (only 30%) signed up, opted in, to put any of their salary into those plans, even when their employers matched funds.55 A dramatic increase—to 90 percent—occurred as a result of a simple change: automatically enrolling workers and then allowing them to opt out rather than requiring them to opt in.56 Although this change may seem obvious in hindsight, it was informed by research on how people make decisions, process complex information, and think about the future.57 Since the initial experiments that demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach, many major investment companies that offer retirement plans have adopted it. The research was persuasive enough to lead to 2006 federal legislation requiring firms to make enrollment in such plans the default, that is, to require opting out rather than opting in.
Insights from social and behavioral research are shedding light on pitfalls in eyewitness testimony.58 Using experiments that stage events and ask eyewitnesses to later record their memories, researchers have shown the ways in which eyewitness testimony is fallible. The reliability of eyewitness testimony has also been called into question by the increased use of DNA testing, which has led to reversals of some convictions that had been based primarily on eyewitness testimony.59
Basic research on human visual perception and memory—some of which has been supported by NSF—combined with applied research on the factors that affect people who are witnesses to crimes, has illuminated some of the factors that can affect eyewitness testimony. Those factors include low lighting, brief viewing times, large viewing distances, duress, elevated emotions, and the presence of
a visually distracting element, such as a weapon; all can affect what witnesses perceive and remember.60 And perhaps most significantly, people fill gaps in what they see or hear with expectations. Even when incorrect, people often feel certain of their perceptions. Memory also is highly malleable and susceptible to influence. For example, the questions that investigators ask witnesses can affect people’s later recall.61,62,63,64,65,66,67,68 These findings suggest that caution is warranted when using eyewitness procedures in the field and when relying on them in court. There is more research to be done on eyewitness identification, involving scientists, the police, and courts, toward the goal of evidence-based policy and practice.
Many children in the United States—9 percent of the U.S. school-age population—live in homes in which a language other than English is spoken. The parents and teachers of these children often worry that speaking to their child in their home language will interfere with their child’s ability to learn English and succeed in school. However, research, including NSF-funded work,69 is showing that learning two languages either at home or in an early child care setting neither confuses children nor puts them at risk for slower language development.
Indeed, SBE research indicates an underlying human capacity for learning two languages as easily as one.70 Newborns as young as 0-5 days old can discriminate between the sounds used in different languages. Newborns exposed to English only during their mothers’ pregnancies attended more to English sounds than the sounds of the unfamiliar language, while newborns who had been exposed to both languages while in the womb attended to both equally.71 Over the first year of life, infants become increasingly able to discriminate speech sounds, rhythms, and patterns and to use these early building blocks in their later language development. In addition, adults and children who are competent in two languages may have some cognitive advantages relative to those who only speak one language, such as greater cognitive flexibility, greater ability to regulate behavior, and less cognitive decline at older ages.72
A person’s ability to delay gratification, to exert willpower, at an early age has surprising power to predict important outcomes in school and in life, according to research funded by NSF and others.73 A simple experiment with hundreds of 4-year-olds more than 40 years ago to study this behavior showed that children differ greatly in their ability to delay gratification.74 Those differences were shown to have profound effects later in life. After following those children through adolescence and into adulthood, the researchers found that the longer (in seconds) that preschool children could wait for a reward, the higher were their later SAT scores, the better their emotional coping in adolescence, the higher their educational achievement as adults, the lower their rates of substance abuse, and the higher their sense of self-worth.75
SBE research also uncovered a set of techniques that can help children delay gratification and control their impulses. These techniques can be taught: when children learned these skills, their long-term outcomes as adolescents and adults were the same as those children who had initially been able to delay gratification.76