SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 6 – The maturing of Behavioural Public Policy: A constructive proposal

Special issue blog series on advancing our understanding of the politics behind nudge and the ‘behavioural insights’ trend in public policy.

Ewert and LoerBenjamin Ewert and Kathrin Loer

There is a controversial debate going on about using public policy to influence people’s behaviour. The discussion becomes particularly heated when behavioural public policy is accused of being manipulative or opaque. Scholarly thinking on Behavioural Public Policy (BPP) as a relatively new policy concept that has been established in recent years is not neutral but influenced by heuristics and biases. BPP is often equated with “nudge”, a notion that goes back to Thaler’s and Sunstein’s definition of the concept in 2008. Moreover, BPP has not integrated with a range of behavioural sciences but instead has been associated with rather restricted insights from behavioural economics and psychology, by behavioural scientists such as Kahneman, Tversky and Thaler. Indeed the fact that BPP suffers from inherent biases is somewhat ironic since the concept’s main claim is precisely to disclose the heuristics and biases that influence human behaviour and to counteract them by behaviourally informed policy designs. That’s the theory. However, in practice, BPP is pretty much determined by “nudge theory”, a fact that, on the one hand, has contributed to the rapid popularisation of the policy concept but, on the other hand, has constantly fuelled criticisms predominantly about its lack of understanding of how people’s behaviour is influenced by social contexts (e.g. families, communities and place of employment) and triggered by situational effects (e.g. peer-group pressure).

Our recent article in our special issue of Policy & Politics takes BPP’s conventional definition and its criticisms as a starting point to investigate whether and how the scientific basis of the concept can be redefined – theoretically, methodologically and empirically. We believe this is a worthwhile endeavour because, while BPP has become normalised within public policy – the most recent example of this is the foundation of an International Behavioural Public Policy Association – there is growing consensus that behavioural policymaking in the future has to move well “beyond nudge”. We would like to contribute to this debate by redefining BPP as a multi-disciplinary and multi-methodological concept that integrates insights from across the spectrum of behavioural research.

We develop our definition of advanced BPP by drawing on the results of a scoping review and peer survey analysing the variety of definitions and methodologies found in the existing literature on state-of-the-art BPP.

While our findings show that the vast majority of the literature was published after 2008, when Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge published, we also show that it represents a wide variety of different disciplines, methods and behavioural concepts. For example, we found that “Nudge theory” was merely a minor part of the literature that constitutes BPP. Remarkably, just 6.8% of the sources we studied (14/201) emanated from behavioural economics and psychology. Likewise, we reported evidence that empirical studies based on BPP did not necessarily use specific methods such as randomised control trials (see the article by Ball and Head in our special issue) to influence individual behaviour change. By contrast, many of the sources we analysed could be classified as qualitative studies exploiting a broad range of methods including explorative studies, specific forms of interviews and focus groups. Our findings show that pluralism is demonstrated in the behavioural literature. Moreover, while classic nudges such as heuristics, biases and defaults do play a role in BPP studies, we identified an even greater number of sociological, anthropological and cognitive approaches to explaining human behaviour, such as social practices, social norms, values, habits and theory of planned behaviour. Even if most of these concepts are not yet categorised or even recognised under the BPP paradigm, they are already used for behavioural policymaking. Having said that, we would argue that so far the term “behavioural public policy” has been used rather as a label without a precise understanding of what it constitutes.

Based on our findings, and with the aim of improving these conceptual weaknesses, we identify a future research agenda to pursue a broader, multi-disciplinary and multi-methodological concept of BPP. In particular, we recommend the development of integrated policy frameworks that seek both behavioural and social change. For example, advanced BPP should enable policymakers to change both people’s health-related lifestyles and the social determinants that lead to lifestyle behaviour in the first place. Finally, we discuss the broader implications of advanced BPP for public policymaking, such as the application of multi-policy approaches informed by behavioural sciences and the translation of multidisciplinary evidence into policymaking. In summary, our article aims to make a constructive contribution to the future development of BPP and, in that way, seeks to revitalise a debate that seems to have reached an impasse in recurrent arguments about single methods, instruments and policy goals.

Ewert, Benjamin; Loer, Kathrin (2020) ‘Advancing behavioural public policies: in pursuit of a more comprehensive concept‘,  Policy & Politics, DOI:  [Free]

Read the other blog pieces in the series: 

FORTHCOMING SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 1 – Why Nudge Sometimes Fails: Fatalism and the Problem of Behaviour Change

SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 2 – Behavioural insights into what motivates public employees on the front line to respond to reforms championed by elected politicians

SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 3 – Behavioural insights teams in practice: nudge missions and methods on trial

SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 4 – Three top tips for better quality behavioural public policy research

SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 5 – In times of pandemic crisis and beyond: Moving to an advanced understanding of Behavioural Public Policy and Administration

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Introduction to the upcoming special issue: Beyond nudge: advancing the state-of-the-art of behavioural public policy and administration [Free]

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