Schools increase attendance with washers/dryers as tools of social acceptance

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Key take-away(s)

This case study illustrates how taking the time to discover and analyze the incentives of agents is often enough to change a behavior.

In some schools in St Louis, attendance was low. Most standard policy measures thought to increase attendance had been implemented, yet attendance remained low for a subset of (poor) students.

After investigating, the staff discovered that—sadly—some students didn’t have access to clean clothes at home and had to wear unwashed clothes to school. These households had no laundry money, no money to buy detergent, etc. most of the time. This made these students uncomfortable because they feared being ridiculed at school (Risks in the ICH framework) and their (rational) reaction to this risk was to skip school altogether when they had to wear unwashed clothes.


The schools investigated, discovered the real obstacle, installed washers/dryers, then gave those students access to them and attendance was back up.


  • It might seem simple superficially, but getting to the bottom of the real incentives agents have requires lots of interviews, analysis, etc. so kudos to the school staff for getting there!
  • The way the schools gave access to the washers-dryers must have been done in a way that made those students not feeling uncomfortable with the look of others. Otherwise, that’s obviously not a good solution to put in place. The real Risk for students that motivate their behavior is fear of being ridiculed by others, not the unwashed clothes by themselves. So the solution needs to provide clean clothes while also avoiding additional stigma and embarrassment of not being able to do their laundry at home.
  • It must not have been easy to get out of the students the real incentive set they are facing, since most of them would consider that an embarrassment.

Further analysis based on the ICH Framework (link)

Note: only sections relevant to this case study are mentioned below. Please look at the complete ICH Behavior Analysis Framework to understand how they fit in a systematic behavioral analysis.


Potential Benefits (positive & uncertain)

  • School is good for me, my future, etc. I should attend school. Uncertain because long term and lots of other circumstances (lack of role models, my sister got pregnant in high school and had to drop-out, so why bother, etc.)

Risks (negative & uncertain)

  • Risk of being ridiculed at school by others if my clothes are dirty, which is very significant in a closed social context and at school ages. Easily outweighs potential benefits. This risk could be identified by analyzing the Incentives set faced by agents systematically, and one step is to check for the elements from the Fogg Behavior Model. This is a direct consequence of fear of social rejection/deviance.


One Answer to School Attendance: Washing Machines – CityLab