In 2013, a research team discovered through controlled trials that editing just two sentences on the website gov.uk would yield 96,000 more organ donors a year.
The message that would yield the most new donors—”If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so please help others”—is by no means revolutionary. Instead of emphasizing how many lives are lost or how many could be saved, it makes people consider fairness and reciprocity. Tailoring the message’s vocabulary, punctuation, and sentence structure is a cost-free way to save thousands of lives.
The idea that such a minuscule change could have such a monumental effect is contrary to our intuition. But to behavioral scientists, the result isn’t that surprising. Research in behavioral economics and psychology has shown that all our decisions are based in part on the way options are presented to us. Every detail matters.
Behavioral scientists like Daniel Kahneman, Cass Sunstein, and Dan Ariely have been demonstrating the mind’s susceptibility to the influence of seemingly trivial factors for decades. Now, behavioral science is moving into the realm of policy.
On September 15, President Obama issued an executive order instructing federal agencies to apply behavioral sciences to policy decisions where possible. The President wants the government to use these findings to maximize policy decisions’ social impact.
The President’s order follows the UK’s move towards behavioral science, initiated in 2010 with David Cameron’s establishment of the Behavioural Insights Team. This group, which was responsible for the study about organ donation increase, evaluates social problems and comes up with the best ways to improve in a wide variety of areas. The idea to apply behavioral science to public policy gained popularity with the publication of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s best-selling book “Nudge,” which outlines how the government can improve decisions about “health, wealth, and happiness.”
Despite the early successes of the Behavioural Insights Team, President Obama’s new order is controversial. “The behaviorists are saying that you, consumer, are stupid,” said Bill Shughart, a professor of public choice at Utah State University. “Evil Obama Using Brain Control on Americans to ‘Nudge’ Behavior,” reads a headline on a conservative pundit site. The Center for Research on Globalization claimed that Obama intends to “monitor Americans’ behavior” and “develop psychological manipulation programs.”
There are many reasons why these objections to the executive order are spurious. The application of behavioral science impacts everyone, not just the “consumer” or a specific segment of the population. Behavioral research shows that the human mind is irrational. Every mind is subject to biases. Our minds are unable to ignore objectively irrelevant factors. What seem like tiny ripples can sway the current of thought, and sometimes redirect it altogether.
This irrationality afflicts not just the minds of the “consumer,” or those of the less educated or less wealthy. Every human mind is subject to whim and impulse. The incorporation of behavioral science into governmental decisions would impact the behavior not of one kind of person, but of every kind of person.
There is an important distinction to be made between irrationality and stupidity. Behavioral science does not imply that we lack intelligence or common sense, but rather reveals the decision-making flaws built into every brain, the tendency that our minds have to make choices not fully rooted in facts.
The worry that Obama is using “mind control” to make people’s decisions for them is not as silly as it sounds, but is nevertheless unfounded. People worry that their choices will be limited and controlled. But behavioral science does not change the options available. Anyone visiting the gov.uk website has just as much freedom to decline to donate as ever before. It’s only the presentation of the choices that is altered.
Furthermore, Obama’s executive order is not only not a poorly masked attempt to infiltrate and control the minds of the masses, but an extremely good way to use government resources as efficiently as possible. The behavioral science research body about our cognitive biases is clear and compelling. It’s a treasure trove of information just waiting to be used to do good. In a world in which the government’s time and money are limited, finding out how to make the most impact is as important as anything else.
Julia Rothchild is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at email@example.com.
(Featured image from scpr.org.)