Behavioral Science, Public Policy, Ethics

The President of the United States has issued an executive order (see here) – government agencies are to use ‘insights’ from behavioral sciences to better serve the American people.

In my view this is a good thing. Science is our friend. Obama’s heart is in the right place. Nonetheless, the order raises a number of ethical and practical issues.

The term ‘behavioral sciences’ is a little broad. However, the executive order mentions the behavioral economics and psychology of decision making as an example of what is in mind. This indicates that what this order is really about is the implementation of ‘nudge’ policies. Some have objected to such policies on the grounds that they violate autonomy or dignity in some way. Perhaps that is right, although it appears to depend on the case at hand. As Cass Sunstein – who has been influential for the Obama administration’s stance on the importance of behavioural science – has pointed out, nudges are inevitable in policy making. A failure to take this into account ensures that the nudges in play will be unintentional rather than intentional. Further, considerations of welfare, autonomy, and fairness may very well support nudge policies in many instances.

This will depend heavily on the effectiveness of the nudge policy, which itself depends in part on the quality of the behavioral science. Given recent evidence that many results from experimental and social psychology fail to replicate, there might be reason to worry here. The executive order does not define what counts as an ‘insight’ from behavioral science. Is it the result of one study? A couple? Deployment of an insight that is nothing more than an experimental artifact could be damaging, or wasteful.

Suppose a genuine insight exists. Even so, implementing it is not straightforward. The executive order reflects thought on this matter, as it encourages executive departments and agencies to:

(i) identify policies, programs, and operations where applying behavioral science insights may yield substantial improvements in public welfare, program outcomes, and program cost effectiveness;

(ii) develop strategies for applying behavioral science insights to programs and, where possible, rigorously test and evaluate the impact of these insights;

(iii) recruit behavioral science experts to join the Federal Government as necessary to achieve the goals of this directive; and

(iv) strengthen agency relationships with the research community to better use empirical findings from the behavioral sciences.

This seems like solid advice, although in practice – given the state of behavioral science – there is sure to be some trial and error in following it.

This is not a post on the ethics of horrible journalism, so I won’t comment overmuch on just how silly and paranoid the response to this directive has been from various conservative publications. Nor will I dignify the publications I have in mind with links. But it is worth noting that beneath the scaremongering you may see regarding this directive may be a legitimate concern. It is this: greater government attention to behavioral science data creates a motivation to collect and analyze and implement such data more generally. This is an issue much broader than the implementation of nudge policy-making, but it affects this policy-making as well. Since the relevant kind of data can be both collected and implemented in ways we would deem unethical, it is important that government collection and use of such data be highly transparent. The executive order makes provisions for a yearly report by the National Science and Technology Council that will summarize “agency implementation of section 1 of this order each year until 2019.” That’s some transparency, but arguably not enough – much more can be done to keep the public informed regarding the use of behavioral science in guiding policy. Ideally, the scientists assisting in this initiative would be given explicit roles in so informing the public.

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