The Government Is Learning How To Change Your Behavior -- Supposedly For Your Own Good

Governments should be obligated to disclose how behavioral science and technology are used in public policy.
Is the government right to keep you from your extra-large soda?
Is the government right to keep you from your extra-large soda?
Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Not every effort to change how we make choices will go flat like the soda ban that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration tried to impose upon the people of New York City.

That effort, which ultimately fell apart after beverage companies sued the city and a court ruled that the public health department had exceeded its regulatory authority, is probably the best known example of a government trying to change how consumers make a given choice.

The idea behind New York City's ban seemed simple enough: people will drink less soda if they're forced to buy a smaller portion. If they wanted another cup of soda, they could go get one -- but overall, people would drink less of it, reducing the risk of obesity or diabetes.

Bloomberg's soda ban became a political football, with a national debate breaking out over whether the government should be able to tell you to get a smaller cup for your drink or not. Public health advocates supported it. Beverage companies saw a risk to their bottom lines. Critics saw it as a restriction of individual freedom, with Big Brother meeting Big Mother.

But despite the controversy, a growing number of governments have been experimenting with applying behavioral science to identify the reasons that people make poor choices about health or their finances, tweaking the way options are presented in randomized trials to assess the results.

This week, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to make behavioral science part of more U.S. government policies and programs, following the promising early results of various experiments by the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team:

By improving the effectiveness and efficiency of Government, behavioral science insights can support a range of national priorities, including helping workers to find better jobs; enabling Americans to lead longer, healthier lives; improving access to educational opportunities and support for success in school; and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy." -- President Barack Obama

In the NPR interview embedded below, Maya Shankar, the team's chairwoman, told host Robert Siegel about their first annual report's findings.

In past years, conservatives have decried the Obama administration's use of behavioral science as liberal paternalism, or the 21st century version of the nanny state.

But research by law professor Cass Sunstein, the former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, suggests people don't oppose the use of behavioral science in public policy; only the outcomes of their political opponents using it. How governments communicate and present choices to the public can be now be tested and improved on an unprecedented scale, and in various forms and contexts.

By deciding to make opting in for organ donation the default choice at the Department of Motor Vehicles, for example, or by automatically enrolling people in retirement savings plans, it's possible to achieve improved social outcomes without huge expense.

Similarly, it can be beneficial to "nudge" people about important deadlines or tasks -- say, when school administrators send text messages to accepted college students as a reminder that they should actually go ahead and enroll in school. Nudges might take the form of a letter, email, text message or other prompt, like the one below.

Agencies can now test different versions of the language used in forms using randomized trials and analyze which ones work better, thus improving websites and digital services.

We should want them to do so, frankly: no one wants to spend extra time filling out forms and applications on a government website, or, more seriously, not to understand crucial questions or details.

Results can improve even more when this approach is coupled with new technologies in non-governmental contexts, like a "smart toothbrush" connected to an app, and incentives, like lower dental insurance premiums for better hygiene.

The U.S. government is far from alone in experimenting with applying behavioral insights to making public policy. As The Guardian reports, there now are "nudge units" in Australia, Singapore and Germany, in addition to the British "Behavioural Insights Team."

That group, founded in 2010, has quadrupled in size and has been spun out of the British government as a private "social purpose" company, taking on projects around the world. In April 2015, the BIT entered into a three-year partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies on its new What Works Cities initiative.

As consumers share more of their personal data for apps and services that help them make choices about their health, energy use, education or finances, they will also need crystal-clear disclosures about how the government chooses to present these choices, beyond notices in the Federal Register.

Baking the evidence gathered from behavioral science into public policy is not without controversy or risk, and concerns about the "nanny state" or privacy abound.

As presidents and prime ministers decide to move forward with this approach, it's crucial that they effectively disclose their rationales for the decisions behind the decisions to lawmakers and the public, so that the consent of the governed is not an afterthought.

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