May 19, 2013


Nudging Conservatives to Harness Behavioral Science (Rich Thau and Celeste Gregory, May 3, 2013, American)

In 1982, social scientist James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published their "Broken Windows" article in The Atlantic, an idea that launched a savvy assault on crime. One unrepaired broken window, they posited, signals a community's indifference and leads to many broken windows. "Vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers -- the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility -- are lowered by actions that seem to signal that 'no one cares.'"

Fighting crime became a Republican wedge issue, and the psychology of broken windows served as the weapon of choice. Rudy Giuliani wielded it most famously as mayor of New York City by vigorously policing minor crimes. In 1998, Giuliani said, "Obviously, murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes. But they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other."

It seemed to work. Thirty years after "Broken Windows," some of New York City's citizens aren't even aware of its crime-ridden past.

The anecdotal evidence of New York's success has been buttressed by research published in the journals Science and Criminology: a disorderly environment leads to more -- and more serious -- disorderly behavior. It's an example of what behavioral scientists call the "priming effect" -- exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus. Broken windows, and other repeated signs of societal deterioration, prime people to believe disorderly behavior is acceptable, and they act accordingly.

The broken windows story is a true conservative success rooted in social science. Yet since then, especially in recent years, conservatives have not followed up with similar public policy formulation and implementation. Meanwhile, the Left is deploying knowledge from emerging fields, such as applied behavioral science, with stunning success. [...]

Conservatives should be thinking now about building at least a small corps of social psychologists and behavioral scientists who could help the next conservative president govern as effectively as possible.
A growing body of compelling research shows that sometimes we follow the "Homer Simpson" in our minds, as Ariely likes to say. In fact, we very often behave irrationally, but in predictable ways. According to Ariely, if we recognize where we fall short and make mistakes in our rational thinking, then we can improve the world.

The 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, a patriarch of applied behavioral science, posits this premise: we each possess two systems of thought, called (unsurprisingly) System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional. System 2 is analytical, deliberative, and logical. Too often we make decisions based on the biases of System 1 -- even when we think we're using System 2.

To illustrate his point, Kahneman cites myriad questions such as this one: a ball and a bat together cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Very predictably, the initial System 1 response is typically "10 cents." It's fast, intuitive -- and wrong. Only when System 2 is engaged, and acts as a check on System 1, would a person determine the correct answer is "five cents."

In addition to System 1 and System 2, behavioral scientists have discerned and labeled numerous patterns in people's intuitive decision-making -- such as "priming effects," "loss aversion," and "what you see is all there is." By recognizing these seemingly irrational phenomena, humans potentially can understand their errors in judgment and avoid them in the future.

The understanding of these tendencies can also be deployed to "nudge" people toward certain behaviors and away from others. "People have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option," write Sunstein and Thaler in the introduction to Nudge. "Research shows that whatever the default choices are, many people stick with them.... Two important lessons can be drawn from this research. First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed."

So, if conservatives could harness that same power, what would they do with it?

Perhaps conservatives would nudge people to stay in school and get married. Maybe they'd nudge them to save more for retirement and take more personal responsibility for their health care spending. But first they'd need to come to terms with the uncomfortable idea of government using these tools.

Indeed, while conservatives rightfully are wary of government nudging (which might appear to some as shoving), there are several policy initiatives where conservatives should pull the behavioral science tool kit off the shelf and start using it, because it brings them closer to the policy objectives they want to see realized, which would benefit society. And by continuing to not use these tools, they're ceding more to the Left than they need to.

Below are a handful of policy examples that outline how applied behavioral science could advance conservative principles on far-ranging policies related to marriage, education, retirement savings, and Medicare.

Posted by at May 19, 2013 10:43 AM

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