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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Inside the Beltway

Behaviour Change inside the Beltway

When it comes to considering the impacts of the behavioural sciences on public policy the US provides the most compelling of case studies. It can be argued that the US is the heartland of the behaviour change agenda, which has seen the insights of behavioural sciences reshaping policies in areas as diverse as tax payments, pension investment, organ donation, domestic energy conservation, HIV prevention, and healthy eating initiatives all around the world (although the UK is in some ways ahead of even the US curve). The US’s claim to heartland status in part relates to the fact that it is the home of behavioural economics: that fusion of psychology and economics that has been central to many contemporary behaviour change policies. Furthermore the appointment of Cass Sunstein as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or “Nudger in Chief”, resulted in the strategic application of new behavioural insights in a series of policy areas. More recently, the Obama administration has established the White House Social and Behavioural Sciences Team headed by Maya Shankar.

Even though the US is the home of the behaviour change agenda, it is also the place where related behavioural policies have been challenged and resisted most directly. Glen Beck infamously claimed that Cass Sunstein was the “most dangerous man in America”, in part because Beck felt his nudge-type policies threatened basic forms of civil liberty. More recently, Fox News  has been debating the formation of the White Houses Social and Behavioural Sciences Team. Meanwhile New York City has witnessed one of the first major legal challenges to new behavioural policy. Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed the banning of the sale of sodas in supersized portions, in an attempt reset the norms of soft drink consumption. The New York State Court determined that the soda initiative “exceeded the scope of its [the city’s health board’s] regulatory authority.” While much of this seems like an overreaction to potentially beneficial policies, it is interesting that these developments are being politicised in this way.

I am currently visiting the US to find out more about recent developments in behaviourally oriented policies here. I am fascinated to see how new behavioural insights will shape policy and politics here. From the various Federal agencies that are likely to adopt the insights of the behavioural sciences over the coming years, to the different state governments that will utilize new behavioural insights, the US will potentially offer unparalleled opportunities for policy experimentation. At the same time it seems likely that behavioural policies are likely to be subjected to significant political scrutiny and debate. Given that in many states behaviour changing policies have often slipped under the political radar, it will be interesting to see if the US can stage a more open debate about the public role of the behavioural sciences. Whether this can be a sensible and constructive debate does, of course, remain to be seen.


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