Reflections on the scale of impact of the new behavioural sciences on public policy-making

This is a guest post from Professor Mark Whitehead of Aberystwyth University.

With all of the contemporary debate and discussion about nudge-type policies it can be difficult to assess the scale of the impacts that the 'new' behavioural sciences (including behavioural economics, behavioural psychology and even neuroscience) are actually having on public policy. At one level, there is a tendency to dismiss nudge-inspired initiatives as being relatively marginal within the broader universe of politics and public policy-making. But such dismissive perspectives are rarely based on careful analyses of actually exiting policies. There are, of course, many different ways in which you can begin to assess the scale of the impacts of any policy regime. Scales of impact can relate to the relative number of policies that have been shaped by new insights; or the actual affects that related policies have on people’s everyday lives. Scales of impact can also relate to the geographical prevalence of the policies under consideration. In a recent report entitled Nudging all Over the World: Assessing the Global Impact of the Behavioural Sciences on Public Policy we outline the scale of the geographical spread of nudge-type policies.

The global spread of nudge-type policies (states shaded blue have engaged in the central orchestration of nudge-types policies; those shaded red show evidence of some form of nudge-type policy being applied in their territory)

The global spread of nudge-type policies (states shaded blue have engaged in the central orchestration of nudge-types policies; those shaded red show evidence of some form of nudge-type policy being applied in their territory)

The Nudging All Over the World report produced some interesting results. The report shows that 136 states have seen the new behavioural sciences have some affect on aspects of public policy delivery in some part of their territory (that is about 70% of all governments in the world). Our research also reveals that 51 states have developed centrally directed policy initiatives that have been influenced by the new behavioural sciences. The report also indicates that although nudge-type policies are most often associated with Western states such as the USA and the UK, they are actually prominent in many Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs). In LEDCs policies informed by new behavioural insights are prominent in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS, diarrhoea, and Malaria. When it comes to the fight against HIV/AIDS in LEDCs, it is possible to discern the deployment of policies that reflect the insights of the new behavioural sciences long before they became popular in the West.

In addition to revealing the geographical scale of impact of nudge-type policies, our research has also revealed the great diversity of policy-types and practices that have emerged under the influence of the behavioural sciences. Consequently, while some policies target conscious aspects of human action others are much more focused on the unconscious. While policies in different places display different approaches to consent, it is clear that in general related policy developments are rarely subject to significant forms of public deliberation.

Nudge - and then what?

So what does this all mean for how we assess the scales of impact of nudge-type policies? Well, it may be too soon to know the extent to which the new behavioural sciences will actually shape the core business of public policy making in the long-term, but what is clear is that a significant number of governments appear to be interested in the potential utility of the new behavioural sciences in directing public policy-making in the short-term.

A copy of our full Nudging all Over the World: Assessing the Global Impact of the Behavioural Sciences on Public Policy report can be downloaded here.

If you're interested in this work, feel free to contact Professor Mark Whitehead.