Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dutch government will make better use of social sciences for better policies

A large part of policy is about influencing our behavior. A nice word for this is “governance” but sometimes you can also call it “manipulation”. Whatever you call it, it’s about narrowing down choices. There are two ways of doing this: either from inside our minds (by teaching us how to make the right choices) or from the outside (by framing choices differently). To put it simply: the government can change us or change our choices.

To do this, the Dutch government first needs to understand how we function psychologically and socially. So it recently asked three scientific councils for advice and received 5 recommendations. In a letter to Parliament (see this link) the Minister of Economic Affairs reacts to the recommendations and indicates how the government intends to use social sciences better for making better policy.

The first contribution of social sciences to better policy is that they show us evidence that we are not as rational as we think. An example: the majority of us spontaneously prefers to accept an offer of 100 euros today rather than wait a year and receive 200 euros (which amounts to refusing a return on investment of 100%!). This finding has consequences inter alia for our pension system because for citizens, the Minister writes, “saving money for their retirement on their own initiative often turns out to be challenging in practice”.

But how to influence citizens so that they make optimal choices without (severely) limiting their freedom? Part of the answer is “nudging”: influencing behavior by using incentives that are effective but that are still easy to avoid if the citizen wants to. Supermarkets use this technique by “using” our habits or natural tendencies for better sales, for example by putting products that yield most revenue in the most visible places. Like supermarkets the government can also take advantage of our natural tendencies when designing policies. To identify ways to do this, the Minister decided to make better use of social sciences in the five following ways:

  1. Capitalize more on expertise of social sciences with specific themes like “avoiding waste of food” and “standardizing financial products”
  2. Systemize this approach by integrating social scientific expertise in the policy design process
  3. Test draft policies empirically before implementation
  4. Be transparent about the use of nudging techniques to avoid the risk that it is perceived as manipulation
  5. Make sure that citizens can deal comfortably with (new) choice scenarios by empowering them with education (policies) and by simplifying choices

You might be surprised that policies for humans are not tested for their “optimal use of human nature” as a standard procedure. I think it is not so surprising for two reasons.

Firstly, human activity is largely organized in silos which are difficult to break down. It starts with the way we introduce ourselves: I’m a security or water policy person, I’m an urban sociologist, etc. Although the walls between policy and science are getting thinner, systematic cross-pollination for mutual optimization is still a dream. And although cross-pollination sounds nice it also represents a lot of extra work in the beginning, which doesn’t speed up the process of growing synergies.

Secondly – and this is related to social sciences –  human nature was not designed to break down the safe walls of our silos that provide us with security and identity. It’s not a natural thing to for humans to climb outside the safe box and walk into the unknown, because for evolutionary reasons our habits were designed to keep us in the box and to keep us busy imitating others (see this research). 

A good example to illustrate this is the phenomenon of yawning. It seems stupid behavior but during evolution it had the strong advantage of being contagious and making everybody go to sleep at the same time. That’s a pretty good recipe for keeping the herd safely together and protecting it from predators. But for effective policy making and climate change mitigation it’s better not to yawn and fall asleep collectively. We’d better wake up, put ourselves into question more systematically and prevent human nature from remaining the blind spot of our policies (see also this link).

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