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Behavioural science challenges assumptions in public policy

by CIFAR Feb 1 / 13

Public policies are designed ultimately to shape outcomes for the betterment of society, and to do this they often have underlying assumptions about human behaviour.

SHAFIR, ELDAR (ED.); THE BEHAVIORAL FOUNDATIONS OF PUBLIC POLICY. © 2013 Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

For example, the state issues fines for speeding to encourage better driving and fewer car accidents. Yet, behavioural research reveals that we often make wrong assumptions when we try to predict how people will act – what social scientists call bad intuitive psychology.

A new volume edited by Senior Fellow Eldar Shafir (Princeton) called The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy compiles leading behavioural research to show how better use of the behavioural perspective could improve how we shape public policy. It has been dubbed by David Brooks in the New York Times as “a weighty new book.”

In commenting on the book, CIFAR Senior Fellow George Akerlof, Nobel Laureate in Economics says, “Roll over economists. We have always, pridefully, thought of ourselves as the major arbiters of good public policy: take it or leave it based on cost-benefit analysis. The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy challenges that hegemony. In each interesting chapter–on topics ranging from discrimination and poverty to health, savings, and bureaucracy–the book shows the role of psychology in public policy. Only one word can describe this book: wow!”

In their chapter on “psychic numbing,” researchers concluded that human failure to react to genocide and other mass-scale human atrocities is not due to insensitivity, but to an inability to “feel” the reality of the situation. The sharing of individual stories rather than the presentation of mass statistics would help to enable such feelings.

In the section on behavioural economics, Dr. Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan present a behaviourally motivated framework for understanding the decisions of the poor. And researchers Susan Fiske and Linda Krieger note that unexamined prejudices on the part of managers continue to stall the advancement of female employees. The researchers consider the initiatives that companies might adopt to reduce workplace sexual discrimination, and advocate for policy initiatives that would ensure an equal opportunity employment policy.

“Ultimately,” writes Shafir, “We hope the reader will come to see the foundational role that behavioural assumptions must come to play in shaping the successful design and implementation of policy. “

With filings from Elizabeth Raymer