Introducing Donna Harris

Dr Donna Harris is our new Director of Studies in Political Economy. She is a Behavioural and Experimental Economist who uses interdisciplinary methods that combine psychology, economics, and neuroscience to study individual and group behaviours with policy applications in developing countries

Can you please tell us about your research?

​My research examines human behaviour: why people behave the way they do, particularly looking at the role of group identities and social norms in influencing people's decisions and behaviours.

I apply this to development policies in developing countries including how to reduce corruption in public services, how to make school cultures more inclusive, how to create change in organisations through collective action, and how social interactions and group memberships can help or hinder altruistic behaviour and financial decisions.

What are ‘group memberships’?

I'm very interested in the influence of social environments on our behaviour, particularly the role of identity – ‘who am I?’ – and how identities can change in different social contexts, largely depending on whom we are interacting with and whether we share the same beliefs and values, and social group membership.

For example, I ran experiments in Thailand to examine how group memberships can make people nicer or meaner to outsiders, using abstract groups and real political rivals. I found that people tend to treat their own group members more nicely, no matter how those groups are formed (in my experiment, the participants were randomly assigned to letters 'A' or 'B' and this already triggered in-group favouritism). Of course, the effect is much stronger when groups have strong meaning to their members e.g., political ideologies or other strong beliefs.

While in-group favouritism is observed regardless of what type of group it is, the out-group members are only treated badly when there is a strong association with the in-group. When groups have no real meaning, the out-group members are treated the same as those who don't belong to any group (we referred to them as the 'neutrals').

In related research in which I examined the neurological responses to being part of a group, I also found that it is much easier to be mean to others when you see that your group is also mean. It is much more taxing for us (requires more effort) to be mean to others on our own. 

It is fascinating how a simple and meaningless group membership that is randomly assigned to you e.g., colours, letters, etc. can also trigger this in-group/out-group behaviour.

One of my research questions was: why does it seem so easy for us to be influenced by group belonging? When do groups lead to good/bad behaviour – and can we use group identity and group membership to change bad to good behaviour?

Looking in a slightly different direction, I participated in research on financial literacy. There we looked at how social interactions (discussing financial problems) with peers can help or hinder learning. Our findings were cited in this article in the Toronto Star, ‘For the best financial advice, ask somebody as uninformed as you’. 

Some of your research involves the Ghana Police Service – what is that about?

Yes, and the idea here was to use the notion of social and group identity to change behaviour.

I have always been interested in corruption and why it seems to be so persistent both in developing and developed countries. (It changes form in developed countries, but it is certainly there). Since my research on group identity pointed to the fact that people are so easily influenced by their group, I wanted to find out whether it might be possible to use group membership to change attitudes and beliefs about corruption and, in turn to change behaviour.

We tried this in Ghana with the Ghana Police Service. Like many developing countries, police corruption is usually perceived as high. Even though not everyone is corrupt, still there is a belief that 'nothing can be done' because ‘everyone else is corrupt’ – or that no one is willing to speak up against or report corrupt behaviour for fear of backlash.

What we did was design a new training programme which focused on group identity and collective action in order to make a change possible. The idea was to bestow a new identity and a sense of purpose to the police officers who participated in the training i.e., that they were the 'agents of change' and together they can make that change.

We also did a documentary with the Brazilian Federal Highway Police which managed to transform its organisation from very corrupt to zero-tolerant to corruption.

They used a similar idea in their training programme for new recruits - gaining a new identity and creed of 'Proud to Belong', which stated: as you have gained the title of police officer within the Federal Highway Police, you have entered a group where all the members are proud to belong, because they act and behave in an honest and professional manner to serve the people. The documentary can be viewed online.

What led you to your current career and area of research?

I'm a very social person and have always been interested in understanding human behaviour. I've grown up in two different countries and was raised in different cultures (Thailand in my early years and the UK for most of my adult life); I travelled a lot with work and also with family and have witnessed many different cultures, different groups, and observed how people change from one context to another. I have also taught many international students and have had many interesting discussions about how they have adapted to new social environment and new group memberships.

Of course, the world today is very segregated. Group memberships seem to guide most (if not all) social and economic behaviours. It seems that we have forgotten that we all belong to the same group, which is humankind. We all face the same challenge which is the climate crisis. With multiple sub-groups, we lose sight of what actually matters for our own survival and the survival of the next generations.

Social media intensifies the segregation since the information you see tends to be posted by people like you – the in-group – creating polarisation in beliefs and attitudes and intensifying the gaps between the in-group and those who are considered as out-groups. 

What are your plans for your area of teaching in the Department?

I have some exciting plans coming up for the next academic year with the Weekly Oxford Worldwide (WOW) programme, the Day and Weekend programme, and the summer programme. There are quite a number of new courses including my own course entitled ‘One Earth, One Mankind: How to Live in Harmony with Our Planet’, which is one of the five day schools in political economy for the coming academic year.

In the area of political economy, we are increasing the number of courses that focus on climate, aligning with the upcoming annual UN climate change conference, Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021.

As part of the long lecture series in Michaelmas term called ‘Climate Change', I am doing a one-hour recorded lecture and attending a live Q&A. Other courses in political economy for the Day and Weekend Events programme include 'Can We Make Education Accessible for All?' and 'Social Entrepreneurship and Other Strategies for Social Change'. 

Finally, we are running the Research Methods course for the Diplomatic Studies Programme and also updating our online short courses in political economy to ensure that they reflect current topics in this fast-moving field.

Discover more about Donna and her research on her academic profile page.

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Published 11 August 2021