A Well-Behaved Government: Obama’s Use of Behavioral Science to Improve Policymaking

Hello fellow Fellows and readers! My name is Rachel O’Connor and I am starting my fourth year of doctoral studies in Social/Personality Psychology at Michigan State University.

Shortly after the last presidential election, reports emerged describing President Obama’s “dream team” of social scientists that advised the president and his team on how to scientifically target messages to voters. Then, at the beginning of this summer, the White announced the creation of a Behavioral Insights Team that would use strategies gleaned from behavioral science, such as those described in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s bestselling book, “Nudge,” to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of social policies. Perhaps more so than any other president, President Obama has embraced behavioral science and its potential power for public policy.

When I heard about these initiatives my nerd-excitement levels went through the roof. I have long believed that science has the potential for creating smarter and simpler solutions to social problems. One of the main reasons I chose to go to graduate school for Social Psychology was because I believe social change requires a basic understanding of human nature and that science might hold answers to contentious political issues. Fields like social psychology, economics, and sociology are focused on explaining what people do and why, and identifying methods and interventions that work; yet, historically, there has been limited communication between researchers and public policymakers. Finally, it seemed there was a president who not only shared my views but was actually willing to begin forging these connections.

However, in just the three years that I’ve been in graduate school a lot has happened in the social science community that has curbed my initial naïve excitement. Highly publicized incidents of data fraud have been uncovered and there has been much greater scrutiny into the replicability (or lack thereof) of popular findings in the field. These types of incidents point to problems in the validity and rigor of social scientific research, and make me wonder if the field is ready for its moment in the policy spotlight.

In my project, I hope to explore both this excitement and wariness. First, I want to more thoroughly explore President Obama’s vision of the interplay of behavioral science and public policy, and examine examples of applications of behavioral science by other presidents and countries. In doing so, I hope to uncover some of the political, ethical, or practical concerns that have heretofore prevented the systematic incorporation of behavioral science in public policy, and how these new initiatives address those concerns. Second, drawing on the social science literature, I would also like to identify potential obstacles to the success of these initiatives, predict how successful these interventions are likely to be, and possibly identify policy areas where these types of interventions are more or less likely to be effective.  Ultimately, I hope to suggest things that both President Obama and his advisers and social scientists can do to ensure the Behavioral Insights Team is successful, and how they can pave the way for even greater implementation of behavioral science in public policy.

I’m excited to learn more about your projects and hear your thoughts on mine!

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