Saturday, July 09, 2016

Behavioural Science and Justice

One of the proposed topics for our network meetings in Dublin is to address how social justice and related considerations interact with behavioural science. Much of the type of literature we cover on this blog deals with how people make decisions and what this implies for efficiency of outcomes. For example, bounded rationality might imply a role for more active regulation to prevent poorer consumer outcomes. There is obviously a widespread debate about the merits of different types of policy in this regard (e.g. reading list here). Another question is how might findings from the behavioural literature inform questions of distribution and fairness.

Below are some illustrative areas that come to mind and is intended to stimulate some discussion:

There is clearly a large literature in psychology, behavioural economics, and experimental economics addressing how people take fairness considerations into account when making decisions and assessing outcomes. The work of people like Ernst Fehr and Matthew Rabin have addressed these considerations.This is an obvious key jumping off point. Identity considerations may also motivate a range of behaviours that go beyond self-interest (e.g. post on this). Historically there is also quite a few precedents of thinkers who sought to draw connections between human desires of justice and fairness and the organisation of society and policy (e.g. Adam Smith).

Obviously Amartya Sen's work will hover over any discussion of the links between concepts like rationality and social justice, and would be good to hear from people on this.

See the work of Bernheim for one formal account of how to reconcile behavioural economics and welfare economics.

Several authors have written on the potential for the emerging literature on behavioural science to impact on addressing and alleviating poverty. Shafir and Mullainathan have argued that a range of behavioural interventions might emerge from understanding how poverty impacts on decision-making (e.g. Scarcity). This general strand of literature should feature in any discussion.

There are also many authors and organisations looking at the potential for behavioural science to improve understanding of effectiveness and mechanisms of different types of developmental projects. Developmental behavioural economics is arguably now a major sub-field of its own, and is influencing the activities of many large-scale organisations involved in development projects (e.g. see the World Development Report 2015 which addresses this link extensively).

Other groups have been looking at how to use behavioural science to encourage various types of pro-social activities such as ethical investing, charitable donations, volunteering, and so on. This report by the Behavioural Insights Team on encouraging charitable donations is a good example and there are several others.

There has been a fascinating discussion ongoing about the potential use of workplace defaults to promote donations to life-saving charities. This is associated with the philosopher Peter Singer, and I have covered it on the blog before. The "Life you can save" website and associated book is useful in this regard.

Related to the above, there is a very interesting discussion as to what causes should be chosen if groups are going to try to influence behaviour to motivate various types of contribution. I linked earlier in the year to Derek Parfit's Oxford Union speech on this issue. There are obviously a lot of very complex questions relating to how any money or other resources raised by nudging people to contribute will be used and how to evaluate competing sources. Some of this is in the domain of econometric causality and some pure moral philosophy. Parfit's 2011 book "On What Matters" asks fundamental questions on why we should take action in different domains, and makes the case for objective ethical grounds for interventions to improve the welfare of the destitute.

Another area that is relevant to the discussion is the extent to which applications of behavioural science are used in regulated consumer markets. For example, findings from the literature might be used by large firms to charge higher prices for a given set of products. People with lower financial literacy and education might be particularly susceptible to being manipulated. Relatedly, there is arguably a role for psychologically informed regulation to mitigate against egregious forms of consumer exploitation. Again, this is a vast topic but worth adding into the discussion.

There is also obviously a long tradition in psychology to advance understanding of human behaviour as a mechanism of overcoming stigma and prejudice against groups of people. This is also clearly apparent in the emerging interdisciplinary behavioural science work (e.g. part 1 of Shafir's Foundations).

No comments: