Thursday, May 25, 2023

The National Academies on Behavioral Economics

Report cover
A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) committee recently published a report* on the contributions of behavioral economics (BE) to public policy.  BE is “an approach to understanding human behavior and decision making that integrates knowledge from psychology and other behavioral fields with economic analysis.” (p. Summ-1)

The report’s first section summarizes the history and development of the field of behavioral economics.  Classical economics envisions the individual person as a decision maker who has all relevant information available, and makes rational decisions that maximize his overall, i.e. short- and long-term, self-interest.  In contrast, BE recognizes that actual people making real decisions have many built-in biases, limitations, and constraints.  The following five principles apply to the decision making processes behavioral economists study:

Limited Attention and Cognition - The extent to which people pay limited attention to relevant aspects of their environment and often make cognitive errors.

Inaccurate Beliefs - Individuals can have incorrect perceptions or information about situations, relevant incentives, their own abilities, and the beliefs of others.

Present Bias - People tend to disproportionately focus on issues that are in front of them in the present moment.

Reference Dependence and Framing - Individuals tend to consider how their decision options relate to a particular reference point, e.g., the status quo, rather than considering all available possibilities. People are also sensitive to the way decision problems are framed, i.e., how options are presented, and this affects what comes to their attention and can lead to different perceptions, reactions, and choices.

Social Preferences and Social Norms - Decision makers often consider how their decisions affect others, how they compare with others, and how their decisions imply values and conformance with social norms.

The task of policy makers is to acknowledge these limitations and present decision situations to people in ways that people can comprehend and help them make decisions that will serve their own and society’s interests.  In practice this means decision situations “can be designed to modify the habitual and unconscious ways that people act and make decisions.” (p. Summ-3)

Decision situation designers use various interventions to inform and guide individuals’ decision making.  The NASEM committee mapped 23 possible interventions against the 5 principles.  It’s impractical to list all the interventions here but the more graspable ones include:

Defaults – The starting decision option is the designer’s preferred choice; the decision maker must actively choose a different option.

De-biasing – Attempt to correct inaccurate beliefs by presenting salient information related to past performance of the individual decision maker or a relevant reference group.

Mental Models – Update or change the decision maker’s mental representation of how the world works.

Reminders – Use reminders to cut through inattention, highlight desired behavior, and focus the decision maker on a future goal or desired state.

Framing – Focus the decision maker on a specific reference point, e.g., a default option or the negative consequences of inaction (not choosing any option).

Social Comparison and Feedback - Explicitly compare an individual’s performance with a relevant comparison or reference group, e.g., the individual’s professional peers.

Interventions can range from “nudges” that alter people’s behavior without forbidding any options to designs that are much stronger than nudges and are, in effect, efforts to enforce conformity.

The bulk of the report describes the theory, research, and application of BE in six public policy domains: health, retirement benefits, social safety net benefits, climate change, education, and criminal justice.  The NASEM committee reviewed current research and interventions in each domain and recommended areas for future research activity.  There is too much material to summarize so we’ll provide a single illustrative sample.

Because we have written about culture and safety practices in the healthcare industry, we will recap the report’s discussion of efforts to modify or support medical clinicians’ behavior.  Clinicians often work in busy, sometimes chaotic, settings that place multiple demands on their attention and must make frequent, critical decisions under time pressure.  On occasion, they provide more (or less) health care than a patient’s clinical condition warrants; they also make errors.  Research and interventions to date address present bias and limited attention by changing defaults, and invoke social norms by providing information on an individual’s performance relative to others.  An example of a default intervention is to change mandated checklists from opt-in (the response for each item must be specified) to opt-out (the most likely answer for each item is pre-loaded; the clinician can choose to change it).  An example of using social norms is to provide information on the behavior and performance of peers, e.g., in the quantity and type of prescriptions written.

Overall recommendations

The report’s recommendations are typical for this type of overview: improve the education of future policy makers, apply the key principles in public policy formulation, and fund and emphasize future research.  Such research should include better linkage of behavioral principles and insights to specific intervention and policy goals, and realize the potential for artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches to improve tailoring and targeting of interventions.

Our Perspective

We have written about decision making for years, mostly about how organizational culture (values and norms) affect decision making.  We’ve also reviewed the insights and principles highlighted in the subject report.  For example, our December 18, 2013 post on Daniel Kahneman’s work described people’s built-in decision making biases.  Our June 6, 2022 post on Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge discussed the application of behavioral economic principles in the design of ideal (and ethical) decision making processes.  These authors’ works are recognized as seminal in the subject report.

On the subject of ethics, the NASEM committee’s original mission included considering ethical issues related to the use of behavioral economics but ethics’ mention is the report is not much more than a few cautionary notes.  This is thin gruel for a field that includes many public and private actors deciding what people should do instead of letting them decide for themselves.

As evidenced by the report, the application of behavioral economics is widespread and growing.  It’s easy to see its use being supercharged by artificial intelligence and machine learning.  “Behavioral economics” sounds academic and benign.  Maybe we should start calling it behavioral engineering.

Bottom line: Read this report.  You need to know about this stuff.

*  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Behavioral Economics: Policy Impact and Future Directions,” (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2023).