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Behavioral science

David Halpern on revolutionizing policy through behavioral science

People often act against their best interests, even when the stakes are high. How can that insight, from the field of behavioral science, help improve humanitarian interventions?

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

David Halpern thinks it’s possible to prevent people in fragile states from joining armed groups, ensure people drink clean water, help children receive routine immunizations, decrease school absenteeism, and more—all without enacting new legislation or rolling out massive overseas aid projects. But to do so, we need a better understanding of just how irrational we all are.

“For many people, you’re using mental shortcuts to make decisions all the time, day in, day out,” Halpern, the chief of the UK’s Behavioral Insights Team, tells Grant and Ravi on today’s episode. While classical economics imagines humans as rational actors who constantly seek to maximize their own best interests, behavioral scientists like Halpern argue that habit, ingrained biases, stereotypes, social pressures, and inertia complicate how we make decisions, often prompting us to act against our own best interests. Subverting those mental shortcuts to make policy more effective is the task of Halpern and the Behavioral Insights Team.

The Behavioral Insights Team works to change how choices are presented in order to make it easier for people to make smart decisions—a practice known as a “nudge,” after the work of behavioral economists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Many parents, for example, say they wish they could save more money for their children’s education—but when it comes to actually doing so, they’re unable to live up to their aspirations. However, Halpern tells Grant and Ravi on today’s episode, “if you pay [a parent’s] wage in two envelopes, it is very likely that they will save because you're always going to open one envelope, but the second one you might just be able to keep shut. And if you give me an envelope where it's got a picture of their kids, they are even more likely to save. And if it's an envelope where their kids are on it, and they have to tear open through the picture of the kids, then you're double or more for savings rate.” Simply dividing wages into two envelopes, where one is implicitly set aside for education, is able to help parents keep their commitments.

David Halpern

Likewise, many families in developing countries are aware of the need to decontaminate water before consuming it, as unclean water can carry bacteria that are among the primary causes of child mortality. But even when decontamination is as simple and cheap as adding one chlorine pill a day to water, many families continue to drink unclean water. It’s not because people are unintelligent, but they’re hemmed in by their own habits and by inertia. We can increase uptake simply by positioning a large plastic chlorine dispenser by a local watering hole or stream, creating social pressures to increase water decontamination—if we see others decontaminating their water, we’re more likely to follow suit. This simple tweak has brought clean water to over 5 million people. In general, Halpern advises, “If you want to think about human behavior, think about making it easy, attractive, social, and timely.”

Most policy, when it comes down to it, involves human behavior. We want people to get back to work faster and pay their taxes. We want kids not to be beaten by their teachers in parts of the world. We want teachers to turn up for school, let alone kids to turn up for school. It’s hard to do this through conventional regulation, but … just like understanding aerodynamics means that you can design a better car … understanding behavioral science means you can design better policy.

It’s easy to see the appeal of nudges as a policy tool: They promise simple, effective, often inexpensive tweaks to existing systems rather than expensive overhauls of underperforming systems. The Behavioral Insights Team, for example, advertises that it has saved the UK government ten times the team’s operating costs by improving how programs work. But nudges, which Thaler and Sunstein have called a form of “libertarian paternalism,” have also received their fair share of criticism. Some argue that they’re inherently undemocratic because they’re policy-making tools masquerading as regulatory adjustments. And it’s clear that in some places, nudges alone will not be enough to change behavior. Some systems require massive overhauls rather than quick fixes.

This episode is about the nexus of behavioral economics and international aid and development. In many respects, this is a frontier, with more questions than answers: How do we use behavioral insights to better integrate refugees into host communities? Can we use nudges to improve instruction in schools in low-income and fragile places? And is it possible to incorporate behavioral insights into the design of our museums to increase empathy? We discuss these questions, and others, with David Halpern.

Related Reading

‘Behavioural economics’ may sound dry – but it can change your life -- The Guardian, David Halpern

The Economist Asks: Richard Thaler -- The Economist

The Neuroscience of Compassion | Tania Singer -- World Economic Forum

Corruption and Social Trust: Why the Fish Rots from the Head Down -- Bo Rothstein

Designing for Nudge Effects: How behaviour management can ease public sector problems -- Presented at London School of Economics Public Policy Group, Paul Rainford and Jane Tinkler

Why ‘Nudges’ Hardly Help -- The Atlantic, Frank Pasquale

This year’s economics Nobel winner invented a tool that’s both brilliant and undemocratic -- Vox, Henry Farrell

Trust Me -- Freakonomics Podcast

The Storrs Lectures: Behavioral Economics and Paternalism -- Cass Sunstein

Nudging in Education -- Economics of Education Review, Mette Trier Damgaard and Helena Skyt Nielsen

How the World Bank is 'nudging' attitudes to health and hygiene -- The Guardian, Tamsin Rutter

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.