Saturday, March 18, 2023

Behavioural Science and Policy Links 18th March 2023

 I am currently on a social media hiatus of sorts. I still can't find a way of engaging with post-Musk twitter and I am just hoping he gets bored and hands it over. I found Mastodon very promising and have not ruled out trying it again. My current main professional role is as head of the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE. UK HOD roles can be very demanding from a time and mental energy perspective and that has been my experience. But I am also proud of how the Department is evolving and excited by the type of projects, programmes, and ideas circulating here. Research-wise, I am continuing to work with colleagues on three basic streams - mental health and economic outcomes,  use of day reconstruction and related methods in behavioural policy evaluation, and ethical and professional aspects of the development of behavioural public policy. Unfortunately, I am not taking on more PhD students for the next couple of years as the current role is too much and sorry to those who have inquired. 

Below are some papers and articles that made me think in the last few weeks. 

1. Recent Nature Human Behaviour article "Behavioural science is unlikely to change the world without a heterogeneity revolution

In the past decade, behavioural science has gained influence in policymaking but suffered a crisis of confidence in the replicability of its findings. Here, we describe a nascent heterogeneity revolution that we believe these twin historical trends have triggered. This revolution will be defined by the recognition that most treatment effects are heterogeneous, so the variation in effect estimates across studies that defines the replication crisis is to be expected as long as heterogeneous effects are studied without a systematic approach to sampling and moderation. When studied systematically, heterogeneity can be leveraged to build more complete theories of causal mechanism that could inform nuanced and dependable guidance to policymakers. We recommend investment in shared research infrastructure to make it feasible to study behavioural interventions in heterogeneous and generalizable samples, and suggest low-cost steps researchers can take immediately to avoid being misled by heterogeneity and begin to learn from it instead.

2. Wall Street journal article by Shlomo Benartzi on behavioural science and encouraging saving.  

3. Cass Sunstein "on certain misconceptions of the role of behavioural science in government". 

In some circles, there is a misconception that within government, the only or principal uses of behavioral science consist of efforts to nudge individual behavior (sometimes described, pejoratively and unfairly, as “tweaks”). Nothing could be further from the truth. Behavioral science has been used, and is being used, to help inform large-scale reforms, including mandates and bans directed at companies (as, for example, in the cases of fuel-economy mandates and energy efficiency mandates). Behavioral science has been used, and is being used, to help inform taxes and subsidies (as, for example, in the cases of cigarette taxes, taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, and subsides for electric cars). Behavioral science has been used, and is being used, to help inform nudges imposed on companies (with such goals as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving occupational safety, and protecting personal privacy). Some important interventions are indeed aimed at individuals (as with fuel economy labels, nutrition labels, and calorie labels, and automatic enrollment in savings plans); sometimes such interventions have significant positive effects, and there is no evidence that they make more aggressive reforms less likely. It is preposterous to suggest that choice-preserving interventions, such as nudges, “crowd out” more aggressive approaches.

4. Continuing its tendency to publish some of the most interesting pieces on behavioural science and policy, the paper "Cultural evolutionary behavioural science in public policy" is well worth a read. 

Interventions are to the social sciences what inventions are to the physical sciences – an application of science as technology. Behavioural science has emerged as a powerful toolkit for developing public policy interventions for changing behaviour. However, the translation from principles to practice is often moderated by contextual factors – such as culture – that thwart attempts to generalize past successes. Here, we discuss cultural evolution as a framework for addressing this contextual gap. We describe the history of behavioural science and the role that cultural evolution plays as a natural next step. We review research that may be considered cultural evolutionary behavioural science in public policy, and the promise and challenges to designing cultural evolution informed interventions. Finally, we discuss the value of applied research as a crucial test of basic science: if theories, laboratory and field experiments do not work in the real world, they do not work at all.
5. Kaiser and Oswald "The scientific value of numerical measures of human feelings". It generated a backlash online about whether what the authors were saying was an obvious restatement of the predictive power of Likert scales but I think that wasn't fair. It is pointing to a different debate about the role of subjective utility indices and making a summary of the case for readmitting them into the economic canon following their near-abolition in the mid 20th-century. 

Saturday, December 03, 2022

OpenaI meets the blog: part 2

 Like a lot of people I have been experimenting with the openAI playground. Below a few examples and am interested to hearing thoughts about what it can do. Obviously a lot has been written about the image and coding capacities but I am mostly interesting in its ability to generate text. I don't have any expertise in AI and I am posting purely as someone trying to figure out the implications of this technology being made so easily available for my areas of research and teaching. My brief impressions so far is that the technology is sufficiently advanced to be able to write essays in my area that would be very solid provided the questions were on material with a solid amount of online references to draw from. Anyone teaching courses being assessed by essays is going to have to think about this but I think that has been the case for several years in any case. It could also do very well specified scoping reviews and summarise the papers but I wouldn't trust it without significant human input. I definitely don't think it will replace research assistants etc., and it might make the role of junior researchers more valuable by increasing the value of the human element. Some of its summaries are uncannily good and some look like they are just winging it and it is quite easy to lead it into a path where it is being overconfident. I was impressed by its ability to find and summarise papers on ethics of nudging (posted here) but I have not come away with a major sense of the tasks I engage with having been fundamentally changed but open to conversation. Update: I also went to track down the papers it found and it turns out they were not actually papers but just incredibly plausible titles which is a learning experience on my side.

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Behavioural Science and Policy Links December 1st

1. Very interesting ECB blogpost on cryptocurrencies. Not favourable. Clearly an area where a lot more work is needed in terms of consumer behaviour also. 

2. Very interesting job posting for a behavioural scientist working with Limerick County Council on transport policy 

LCCC require a Behavioural Scientist to help manage our growing Active Travel network within Limerick City and County. The Behavioural Scientist will conduct assessments with each stakeholders, decide on the most appropriate intervention  required or implemented, and deliver effective measures to promotes usage of new & existing network.

3. Understanding Society blogpost on our recent paper on autoenrolment and mental health gaps in pensions.  

4. 15th Annual Economics and Psychology Conference (December 16, 2022)]

OpenAI meets the blog: Ethics of Nudging

Below is the output from asking openAI to generate 20 recent papers on the ethics of nudging. I also asked it to write the paragraph summarising this. It is quite striking to see this. All of the paper titles are highly relevant and the summary is very solid. There is obviously a lot to think about in terms of how these technologies might be used to keep track of and synthesise various literatures and the implications for teaching etc., Update: I went to actually track down the papers and it turns out that they are just very plausible titles rather than links to real papers.  I am a bit stunned by this tbh!

OpenAI summary 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Recent Behavioural Science and Policy Links November 13th

It is still very difficult to know fully what to do about posting on twitter. I have not deleted my account. I am not actively posting. I RT'd the happy announcement of one of our PhD students passing their viva on the basis that many people on my timeline know the student and would want to celebrate. My current mood with it is basically to see this as a transition phase before something new emerges.  I have continued to engage with mastodon (link here). It has been exciting to see various people and groups move there and I highly recommend trying it out but it is clearly still open as to what function it will begin to fill. The main problem for me is that there are many people on twitter I would like to stay connected to and it is sad to just burn all of that. For now, will continue to post here on the blog and link through mastodon and Linkedin. 

1. The Behavioural Economics Guide 2022. Always incredibly detailed and informative. 

2. The i-frame and the s-frame: How focusing on individual-level solutions has led behavioral public policy astray Article by Chater and Loewenstein in Behavioural and Brain Sciences is obviously generating a lot of commentary.

Abstract: Many behavioral scientists propose and test policy interventions that seek to 'fix' problems with individual behavior (adopting an "i-frame") rather than addressing the system in which individuals operate (an "s-frame"). The impact of such i-frame interventions has been disappointing and can reduce support for much-needed systemic reforms. Highlighting individual responsibility for societal problems is a long- established objective of corporate opponents of s-frame policies such as regulation and taxation. Thus, researchers advocating i-frame solutions may have unwittingly promoted the interests of the opponents of systemic change. Behavioral scientists can best contribute to public policy by employing their skills to develop and implement value-creating system-level change.

3. Paper by Herd and Moynihan connecting the administrative burden literature to the emerging behavioural public administration literature, introducing a symposium on behavioral implications of administrative burden

The topic of administrative burden is relatively novel, but reflects people’s most common experiences of government: confusion about what is expected of them (learning costs), onerous processes (compliance costs), and associated emotions such as frustration (psychological cost). This symposium applies a behavioral perspective to the topic. We learn, for example, of the role of race and social constructions in people’s beliefs about burdens and their role in social programs. We are given evidence of how burdens restrict access to important public services. Perhaps most usefully, the authors engage with different interventions to find ways to reduce burdens. This ranges from changes in the physical space, to process redesign, to informational nudges. The resulting work provides a broad range of applied empirical insight that shines a light on a pressing area of study.

4. Anomalies or Expected Behaviors? Understanding Stated Preferences and Welfare Implications in Light of Contemporary Behavioral Theory. Enjoyed working on this paper with colleagues that attempts to bridge the stated preference literature with the emerging literature on behavioural welfare economics. 

The stated preference literature contains an expansive body of research on behavioral anomalies, typically understood as response patterns that are inconsistent with standard neoclassical choice theory. While the literature often implies that anomalous behaviors are distinct to stated preferences, widespread evidence of similar patterns across real-world settings raises the potential for an alternative interpretation. We argue that these anomalies might actually reflect behaviors that are to be expected once deviations from the standard economic model and behavioral reactions to the choice architecture in stated preference surveys are considered. The article reviews and organizes the evidence of so-called “anomalous” stated preference behaviors within the context of behavioral science to provide guidance for applied welfare economics. We coordinate evidence on these anomalies using a typology grounded in behavioral science, which groups non-standard behaviors into: non-standard preferences, non-standard beliefs, and non-standard decision-making. We apply this typology to organize the evidence, clarify nomenclature, and understand the implications of non-standard behaviors in stated preference studies for applied welfare analysis. Observing the systematic and common nature of these behaviors in actual and hypothetical settings, we outline possibilities to overcome associated challenges for applied welfare analysis, by adapting new frameworks for welfare analysis proposed within behavioral science.

5. List of most-read papers on Behavioural Public Policy here. The FORGOOD paper is still there but more generally it is fascinating list of papers and the wider journal itself is a treasure-trove for people interested in developing a behavioural public policy literature bringing disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, and economics together to understand human behaviour in policy-relevant environments. 

6. "Ten years of Automatic Enrolment in Workplace Pensions: statistics and analysis"  Recent document released by UK government. The impact of auto-enrolment on pension participation in the UK has been extraordinary. Opt-out rates in line with the low numbers anticipated by the literature that led up to it.

Next Generation Behavioural Science Simulation

Along with my colleagues at LSE Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science,  Miriam Tresh, Bradley Franks, and Chris Hunt, with support from the EDEN Centre at LSE, we have developed a simulation exercise for our students (currently focused on undergraduates) which has various titles but is coming to be known as Next Generation Behavioural Science (NGBS). NGBS is a simulated non-profit research organisation that our undergraduate students encounter in their final year as part of a course on advanced applications of behavioural science. 

Students are assessed in two ways as part of this course - firstly they put together a portfolio of all the work they have conducted on the degree so far to illustrate how their ideas and skills are relevant to the organisation. They are then hired in various capacities (research analyst, policy analyst, stakeholder liaisons) to work on a set of projects for the agency, commissioned by a fictitious global philanthropy group. All this takes place alongside a set of lectures throughout the year that examine applied behavioural science applications, as well as lectures on wider issues such as ethical and cultural aspects of applied behavioural science. There are frequent classroom discussions about the ideal quality of a behavioural science non-profit, ethical aspects of projects, the future direction of this area etc., Students are encouraged to look closely at existing applied behavioural science groups and to reflect on good practice, and their own ethical and normative stances. 

It culminates in a simulation exercise where students work off-site in groups to finalise and present their projects.   Faculty attend either as executives from NGBS or representatives from the philanthropy organisation. Students work on their presentation throughout the day and are given some prompts as to areas of focus from the organisation. It finishes with a set of presentations and then the students spend the following week finalising the reports before submission. Topics last year included applied behavioural science projects in areas such as gambling, climate change, emerging digital financial products, pensions, pandemic readiness, and others.  Some random photos from the first event held at WeWorks Canary Wharf are below. Attending this event was one of my career highlights from the education side of my job, and in general the framing of the simulation encourages students to really give their best and come up with interesting ideas and to present them well. 

In terms of giving some shape as to the future direction of behavioural science, students are provided with a reading list to give them a sense of the type of things we are trying to cultivate. An indicative reading list is below but this changes rapidly each year 

Banerjee, A., Banerji, R., Berry, J., Duflo, E., Kannan, H., Mukerji, S., ... & Walton, M. (2017). From proof of concept to scalable policies: Challenges and solutions, with an application. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(4), 73-102.

Bavel, J. J. V., Baicker, K., Boggio, P. S., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., ... & Willer, R. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature human behaviour, 4(5), 460-471.

Chater, N., & Loewenstein, G. (2022). The i-Frame and the s-Frame: How Focusing on the Individual-Level Solutions Has Led Behavioral Public Policy Astray. Available at SSRN 4046264.

Dolan, P., & Galizzi, M. M. (2015). Like ripples on a pond: behavioral spillovers and their implications for research and policy. Journal of Economic Psychology, 47, 1-16.

Dolan, P., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., King, D., & Vlaev, I. (2010). “MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy” Institute for Government and Cabinet Office.

Lades, L. K., & Delaney, L. (2022). Nudge FORGOOD. Behavioural Public Policy, 6(1), 75-94.

Michie, S., Van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation science, 6(1), 1-12.

Milkman, K. L., Patel, M. S., Gandhi, L., Graci, H. N., Gromet, D. M., Ho, H., ... & Duckworth, A. L. (2021). A megastudy of text-based nudges encouraging patients to get vaccinated at an upcoming doctor’s appointment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(20).

Muthukrishna, M., Bell, A. V., Henrich, J., Curtin, C. M., Gedranovich, A., McInerney, J., & Thue, B. (2020). Beyond Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) psychology: Measuring and mapping scales of cultural and psychological distance. Psychological science, 31(6), 678-701.

OECD (2017), Behavioural Insights and Public Policy: Lessons from Around the World, OECD Publishing, Paris,