If someone has invented a successful, innovative, cost-effective social program, doesn’t it seem likely that it would spread quickly to other communities?  Susan Evans and Peter Clarke have written a fascinating article detailing why many programs become “orphan innovations” that no one else adopts.

The authors describe a program started by a retired produce wholesaler in Los Angeles, who convinced distributors to donate slightly spoiled produce to food banks.  Before long, poor families were receiving fresh fruits and vegetables that would have been dumped in landfills.  Evans and Clarke took it upon themselves to make sure that this program was adopted in other cities, but ran into many roadblocks, such as skepticism from overworked local officials that the program would work.  Eventually, through sheer determination, they succeeded: the program spread to dozens of communities.  But it took 20 years of hard work, creativity, cajoling, and financial support.

Their conclusion?  A social program cannot simply be transferred from one locale to another.  Instead, it has to be customized at each new location.  Unlike a fast food chain, that plops a carbon copy of a restaurant down in every community in American, social programs have to be adapted to the particular staff, clients, and ecology of each setting.

There are valuable lessons to be learned here for those of us interested in social psychological interventions that improve human welfare.  There is a growing movement to translate social psychological theory into interventions that help people in the real world, including ones that help people recover from traumatic events, prevent child abuse, reduce adolescent behavior problems, and close the achievement gap in education (as I chronicle in my book Redirect).  Critically, these interventions are being tested with well-controlled experiments, to see if they work. This is a huge advance over relying on common sense, which has led to the wide-spread adoption of programs that don’t work or do harm (see my earlier post, Testing, Testing).

But Evans and Clarke make a good point that we can’t stop there.  Once we have developed a new intervention that works at one locale, it can take a great deal of effort, persuasion, and money to ensure that it spreads to other locations, instead of becoming an orphan innovation.

Although I agree with this important point, there is one thing about Evans and Clarke’s argument that makes me nervous.  If programs can only spread through customization, how can we be sure that the new hybrids capture the essence of the one on which they were based?  It is relatively easy to demonstrate that food banks are receiving free donations of fresh produce, but harder to show that a social psychological intervention is making people happier or reducing teen pregnancy.  The only way to do so is to conduct experimental trials of the programs in each locale as they are implemented and customized.  By so doing we can see if they are working, and may even discover ways of improving upon the original program, thereby spawning many effective sibling interventions.

Timothy Wilson is the Sherrell J. Aston professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Wilson’s book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change was published by Little, Brown in September.  Dr. Wilson is a regular contributor to THCB.

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3 Responses for “Orphan Innovations”

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    Sounds like a great argument on why the federal government should not be involved in anything but defending our borders, foreign affairs and regulating commerace between the states.

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