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The future of behavioural tools in public policy

23 August 2022



While there is increasing awareness and use of behaviourally informed approaches and tools in public policy, there is limited systematic evidence on developments across the world and across sectors. A chapter in an e-book about policy tools identifies the key challenges associated with the adoption of behavioural policy tools and assesses how far behavioural policy has engaged with these issues.

Seven key challenges

The chapter identifies seven challenges to behavioural policy research:

1. The lack of evidence on long-term effects. Some attribute this to the absence of longer-term studies and projects. Others have argued nudges overemphasise individual preference and adopt an atomistic approach to social structure. This results in their limited ability to usher in long-lasting behavioural modifications.

2. The behavioural approach ignores cultural and national differences with behavioural insights mainly tailored to the Western context. The terms WEIRD has been coined to describe the majority of those generating behavioural insights – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Developed. Behavioural scientists need to engage with a wider pool of (non-Western) subjects if they are to generate behavioural insights that are applicable to other cultures and contexts.

3. Policy makers are themselves behavioural agents and therefore not immune to psychological biases. For every bias identified for individuals, there is an accompanying bias in the public sphere. For example, ‘confirmation bias’ (the selective gathering of evidence to support previously held beliefs) is frequently identified with the behaviour of policymakers.

4. The possibility of behavioural spillovers and unintended consequences. For example. energy efficiency interventions are associated with a rebound effect, where consumers end up increasing product use when their energy costs fall.

5. The lack of agreement about which behavioural insights should be targeted when, and which insights have the strongest impact. Behavioural insights comprise a wide range of different practical approaches and have different normative starting points.

6. The behavioural approach has little to say about organisations. Nudges have tended to use the individual as their unit of analysis and not much is known about how behavioural science can improve organisations. There are fewer cases evaluating the impact of behavioural interventions on organisations than on individuals.

7. Ethical considerations and whether nudges can be considered manipulative as they exploit imperfections in human judgment.

About the research

The research data came from around 100 articles including behavioural studies published in the top four public policy journals between 1990 to 2016. Researchers took a wide view, and classified studies as behavioural if they employed a behavioural insight and/or an experimental approach.

What the research found

From 2007 onwards, there was discernible increase in the absolute number as well as the relative share of behavioural articles in the top policy journals. By the year 2016, behavioural studies comprised a tenth of all public policy articles. This figure is similar to the three top economics journals in 2016, where behavioural studies comprised 8 per cent of all published articles.

The spread of behavioural studies in the policy literature reflects the increasing awareness and acceptance of behaviourally informed insights in public policymaking. It also reflects the publication of Thaler and Sunstein’s pivotal work on nudges.

There was a relatively restricted geographical spread. Until 2009, almost all behavioural studies were set in the US. From 2010 onwards, behavioural studies began to cast a wider net in terms of geographic location. The highest proportion of behavioural studies were located in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland and the UK.

Behavioural studies have been used in sectors like health, education, finance, law and order, environment and natural resources. There are no studies that deal with agriculture, climate change, water or transport or energy.

Behavioural studies have been used to explore more abstract issues such as those related to the decision-making processes of policy makers. This includes trust, risk, satisfaction, attitudes, beliefs, identity and diversity. Typical public policy areas that behavioural articles have studied include public service motivation, decentralization, public service delivery and participation (including collaboration, cooperation and co-production).

The bottom line

Despite the rising prominence of behavioural policy instruments, there has been limited systematic evidence of the research agendas and activities around them. Out of the seven challenges, there were no studies exploring the spillovers, the long-term impact of behavioural interventions and the ethics of nudging.

Concerns have also emerged about the relatively modest effects of behavioural policy tools when put into practice on the ground and their failure to scale up. If behavioural policy is to continue on its ascendant path, it will need to address this criticism while accepting that behavioural policy tools may not suffice as stand-alone policy instruments.

Want to read more? 

The future of behavioural tools in public policyStuti Rawat and Michael Howlett, The Routledge handbook of policy tools, August 2022 

The e-book article is available via individual or institutional access through a library service such as a university library, state library or government library.

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Published Date: 23 August 2022