Can the use of behavioural insights ever really be mainstream in public policy?

Update: 28/11/2012: The audio from Warren’s talk can now be heard here.

Lord Krebs, incoming President of the British Science Association was reported last week as criticising government use of ‘nudges’.

Yet this amounts to a reservation that they are using behavioural insights as a “get out of jail card if the government wants to avoid tougher approaches like taxation and regulation”, shooting down a case that precisely no practitioners are making in the first place.

In fact, it feels as though using behavioural science to inform policymaking is on the verge of becoming mainstream – in principle at least. When you remember that this was only really a trendy discussion topic a handful of years ago, it represents a significant advance.

Looking ahead, in the long run, the underlying assumption behind the case for using behavioural insights (that we are “predictably irrational”, so policy and services need to reflect this) will be challenged.

I predict it will be turned on its head, and I’m going to do what I can to make sure it is. Why? Because our true nature, our loss aversion, our temporal discounting, the heuristics we use are, in fact, completely rational, given the way our species has evolved.

We only appear to be irrational when viewed through the lens of economists and philosophers whose assumptions were never true.

I’m sorry to have to break this news to some readers, but humans are not rational economic agents, operating in an economy heading for equilibrium (and credit is due to IPPR for bringing this understanding closer to the mainstream with its Complex New World report).

There are, however, a number of obstacles that stop this growing acceptance being put into practice.

  1. the number of practitioners (that is, people who help bodies apply behavioural insights) is small;
  2. there isn’t a clear market for commissioning behavioural work in public services which don’t already focus on behaviour (and this is also a chief cause of #1);
  3. it doesn’t ‘belong’ to any existing profession (and, of course, this is a chief cause of #2)

So while behavioural insights have informed the work of designers and advertisers for decades, that’s just not true in public policy. What’s becoming mainstream in principle is being held back in practice.

If I’m right, then over the next few years, we’ll have to face up to the real challenges of public policy catching up with the evidence base and making decisions based on what people are really like, not what Enlightenment thinkers and classical economists say that we’re like.

These challenges should be much more substantial than the red herring debates to date (such as that around the House of Lords Select Committee report).

The event I’m doing with Political Innovation aims to highlight one such practical challenge, namely the tension between using insights from behavioural sciences and an approach that progressive voices, myself included, are rightly positive about: co-design.

Surely, in participative democracy, participation and service design, co-design with citizens and users is a good thing?

Surely it can cement the move away from the ‘we know best’ style of decision-making which has rhetorically been a no-no for twenty years, but which we all privately admit still prevails?

Here’s the problem, though: Why would I, as a citizen, play a part in designing a service which aims to prompt certain behaviour on my part with cues which I consider irrational or childish?

As a policy maker, what is my response to this? Should I accept that the human inclination to think that we are much more in control of our actions than we really are trumps proven, scientific insight?

The risk is that the use of behavioural insights becomes an extension of ‘we know best’ policy-making. And that’s what we’re trying to avoid, isn’t it? I’m not sure I have the answers, but I’m pretty sure that the questions here are going to be important.

I hope we get a good crowd along on the 25th September to discuss this.

About Warren Hatter

Warren Hatter devised and runs With The Grain. He uses insights from behavioural economics and behavioural psychology, to help local authorities and public health professionals work out how to encourage ‘desired’ behaviours in a way that is more ‘with the grain’ of human nature.
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