Thanks to Kathryn MacKay for preparing this excellent summary of our recent workshop on the ethics and evidence of behavioural science in public policy. The workshop was organised by myself and Muireann Quigley from Newcastle Law School and heard talks for a range of speakers from psychology, law, economics, sociology, and public policy perspectives. The ethical and legal aspects of behavioral science applications in policy is one of three key themes of our emerging research group in Dublin and we will be organising several events on these topics over the next three years.
Behavioural economics, and behavioural science more generally, has become an increasingly salient aspect of modern policy debates. Despite the current enthusiasm amongst governments and policy-makers for behavioural approaches, there are potential problems with the use of the behavioural sciences to formulate public policy, many of which remain underexplored. This workshop brought together papers from a range of different disciplinary, regulatory, and practical perspectives to examine the potential benefits and pitfalls of behavioural science as applied to policy. The workshop was focused around three core themes: Evidence, Ethics, and Expertise. Speakers presented on the debates surrounding the existence of empirical evidence for people's irrationality, including evidence for biases and an unwarranted reliance on heuristics, which is often used as the justification for 'nudge' techniques. Presenters also questioned the normative foundation for the use of these techniques, in law and in ethics. Finally, presenters discussed the policy-making process in terms of what is counted as evidence and who is granted the authority of expertise to make behavioural policy decisions, as well as the complexity of doing truly interdisciplinary work in academia and in policy. This report provides a summary of the presentations in each session, as well as some of the themes that emerged from discussions on the individual sessions and the workshop as a whole. While presenters approached the topic of behavioural insights in policy development from different angles, the broad consensus at the end of the day was that these should be approached and implemented with caution. Presenters agreed that much more research on behaviourally-informed policy's effectiveness over time and impact on people's welfare is needed. Presenters also largely agreed that the application of behavioural insights was not a straight-forward exercise, and tended to raise very important ethical, legal, and empirical questions. There was further consensus that behavioural sciences will continue to evolve and to inform policy in advanced democracies, and that as the field moves forward other disciplines will be required to test, verify, critique, and surveil the translation of behavioural insights into policy.