Behavioural Public Policy: an Upsurge in Policy Agendas (Part 1)

Creator: KEN BOHN Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Introducing the Series of Three Blog Posts

This is a series of  four blog posts of approximately 1000 words to discuss various debates and issues around Behavioural Public Policy (BPP) and policy mixes. It’s based on this article published in 2022 in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.

Part 1 introduces the field of BPP, some major authors and pieces that laid foundation of this relatively new field and key debates around it. It also briefly introduces the idea of policy mixes. Part 2 explains in more detail the concept of policy tools and their mixes and discusses the typology that Mukhtarov offered to engage with mixes of reflective and behavioural policy tools. Part 3 answers one of the two questions that the paper asked: to take stock of the types, geography and the extent of empirical detail in the studies that did analyse policy mixes in environmental policy. Part 4 then focuses on a more specialised discussion of whether the literature on policy mixes reflects key debates in the public policy studies around dealing with uncertainty and complexity.

A Surge in Behaviouralism

The project of behavioural public policy, that is a field of policy studies that focuses on interventions “directly inspired by, and designed on, the principles of behavioural research”[1], has made much impression on politicians, policy-makers and academics in the past few decades. Ever since Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel prize for his work with Amos Tversky (a rocky friendship that spanned decades and provided the stock for a nice non-fiction) and publication of his best-seller “Thinking Fast and Slow” in 2011, and Richard Thaler’s Nobel Prize in 2017 and his best-selling book “Nudge” co-authored with Cass Sunstein from 2009, other two important names in modern behaviouralism, this agenda dominated the world of public policy and development studies.

Research exploded as did so-called Behavioural Insights Units in governments around the world, with over 130 such units recorded in 2013 according to one source[2]. The 2015 World Bank World Development Report titled “Mind, Society and Development” has affirmed the popularity of this approach in development studies and among practitioners, but also unfortunately entrenched many faulty assumptions about how humans behave. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) produced this video about BPP, an area of research OECD has been active in.

Behavioural Public Policy is the next BIG THING in public policy. 

The academic research world followed with a recent Edward Elgar collection of 24 essays devoted to behavioural policies, a number of influential monographs and a wide uptake of behavioural insights in national and international policies. A specially designated academic journal Behavioural Public Policy” was founded and describes itself as “an interdisciplinary and international peer-reviewed journal devoted to behavioural research and its relevance to public policy”.

Critics and Discontents

But such upsurge of behaviouralism in public policy has its discontents. One of the major ones is that it reduces human behaviour to some essentialist features that underplay culture, socio-economic environment and politics. Furthermore, it’s been criticised for being too experimentally driven without the methodological and epistemological pluralism that is needed to understand the complex subject of human societies. There are more protests: about approaching humans as passive followers and not active citizens, for approaching humans as individuals and not parts of communities, for not making claims about long-term behavioural change and changing minds instead of changing practices alone.

This debate has been hot and much ink has been spilled on it. In many ways the debate was between disciplines and worldviews on how humans behave and how to study such behaviour: sociologists, anthologists and public policy scholars questioned the narrow approach of BPP whereas economists, psychologists and development studies specialists pushed with the agenda nevertheless amidst much enthusiasm from governments and funders. You can follow some papers below if you are interested in this debate.

Policy Mixes: What, How and to What Effect?

One area of consensus is that a broader, more humanised version of BPP is needed that is pluralistic, adaptive and contextual. Such approach is less easily put in a box and is perhaps less successful with impatient policy-makers and donors eager to get “quick wins”. But it nevertheless is better supported by evidence that humans are communal creatures, that knowledge unfolds in contexts, and that public policy, to be successful, needs to be pluralistic.

Pluralistic, what does it mean? Many things. But one of the key assertions is that it means applying behavioural policy tools together with more traditional public policy tools, and especially with deliberative ones as those are by design democratic and about attitudes, reflection and cognitive change. Indeed, policy mixes have been more successful in changing human behaviour compared with singular policy tools, such as taxes or education. One example in case is successful policy of the collective West to curb smoking in the past 20 years: a multitude of policy tools were used: pricing, bans on smoking in public places and tobacco advertising, nudging through graphic packaging, public education campaigns and various discussions in schools and public fora about smoking. However, when it comes to the obesity epidemic, mental health issues and broader environmental issues, such comprehensive policy mixes are never in sight. Or are they just not noticed? We will explore that in our next post.

Some references

Brulle, R. J. (2010). From environmental campaigns to advancing the public dialog: Environmental communication for civic engagement. Environmental Communication4(1), 82-98.

Hall, C. (2016). Framing and Nudging for a Greener Future. In The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory, Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Sunstein, C. R. (2015). The ethics of nudging. Yale Journal on Regulation32, 413.

Straßheim, H., (2020). The Rise and Spread of Behavioral Public Policy: An Opportunity for Critical Research and Self-Reflection. International Review of Public Policy, 2(2: 1).

[1] Galizzi MM (2014) What is really behavioral in behavioral health policy? And does it work? Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 36(1): 25–60.

[2] Whitehead, M., Jones, R., Lilley, R, Pykett, J., & Howell, R. (2018). Neuroliberalism: Behavioural Government in the Twenty-First Century. Routledge: London.

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