Behavioral Science in Local Government

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75206-fullAnyone who has taken a basic economics course understands that core economic theories rely on the assumption that people act rationally. Anyone who has worked with people understands that, simply put, they are not very rational actors. This is where behavioral science steps in.

Professor Dan Ariely of Duke University was one of the main speakers at an event earlier this fall that brought together local government officials to learn about behavioral science. As the article mentions, the White House has even gotten in on this. In September 2015, President Obama issued an Executive Order that called for the federal government to use behavioral insights to better serve Americans.

Behavioral science (or “behavioral economics”) is, essentially, the study of how people actually make decisions—as opposed to how they “should” according to theory or rationality. It combines psychology and economics. This Harvard Business Review article references how an understanding of behavioral science can help policymakers create more effective policies and interactions with their constituents. One of the most well-known findings in the study of behavioral science provides insight into choices dealing with opt-in and opt-out choices. This example reveals the dramatic difference in outcomes between places that use forms that require the user to opt-out from organ donation as opposed to those that require the user to opt-in.

Governing takes another look at the impact on behavioral science on public policy. The consistent conclusion is that seemingly small changes in how policies are designed and presented can lead to significant changes in their effectiveness. In some cases, this can inform actions that the local government can take in order to more effectively achieve the desired outcome. In other cases, an understanding of behavioral science can simply lead to a more complete explanation for why people behave in a certain way.

Several organizations mentioned in the Governing article may be useful as resources for North Carolina communities. One, the Behavioral Science and Policy Association, is based in Durham and is now publishing relevant research in a quarterly journal. Many of these efforts focus on broader public policy issues or on larger cities across the country, but the insights may be similarly useful for smaller or more rural communities within North Carolina.

Do you have any experience using insights from behavioral science in local public policy? How do you think behavioral science might impact your community? Use Twitter (@SOG_CED) the “Comments” section below to brainstorm with others.

Graham Sharpe is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a Master’s in Business Administration at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. He is a Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.


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