Federal ‘nudge squad’ led by 20-something wunderkind gears up to change Americans’ behaviors – for our own good
PUBLISHED: 14:00 EST, 30 July 2013 | UPDATED: 14:06 EST, 30 July 2013
When does a nudge become a shove?
Americans may find out in coming years, as the federal government is setting up a ‘behavioral insights team’ to tinker with the way we accomplish everything from saving money and staying in school to losing weight and becoming more energy-efficient.
A document from Maya Shankar, a late-20s Yale graduate and former violin prodigy, sketches out the Obama administration’s grand plans for behavioral science.
Shankar joined the Obama administration in April as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.
‘[I]nsights from the social and behavioral sciences can be used to help design public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals,’ says her proposal, first spotted by Fox News when Shankar sought help from a university professor.
In 2006 Shankar was named one of Glamour magazine’s ‘Top Ten College Women,’ telling the editors that her dream job was to become ‘Science advisor to the president.’ A handful of years later, she’s already there.
Shankar’s mandate is to reproduce a British pilot project in the U.S. Launched in 2010, it identifies and tests ‘interventions’ that can save the government money, and drives ordinary Britons to embrace behaviors that the government finds desirable and cost-effective.
In the UK, a series of bulletins from the office of the Prime Minister’s cabinet sketch out how broad the approaches have become. They have already tackled wasting food, cheating on exams, job-seeking schedules, skimping on charitable giving, drinking milk, morning commutes, choosing sources of energy and sticking to New Year’s resolution.
Now the concept is poised to enter America with a formal structure consisting of a team to oversee clinical experiments to see what works and what doesn’t. Shankar’s memo suggests the project is already up and running.
‘We are already working with over a dozen federal departments and agencies on newly-designed behavioral insights projects,’ the document reads, ‘including the Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, Veterans Administration, Department of Treasury, Social Security Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the United States Department of Agriculture.’
Shankar did not respond to a request for comment. She finished her postdoctoral research at Stanford this year, where her faculty advisor was Dr. Samuel McClure.
McClure studies ‘delay discounting,’ the habit of giving up large future rewards in favor of smaller bonuses in the short term.
Some behavioral scientists believe they can improve people’s self-control by understanding the relationship between short term memory, intelligence and delay discounting.
This has mostly been used to counter compulsive gambling and substance abuse, but Shankar’s entry into government science circles may indicate that health insurance objectors and lapsed recyclers could soon fall into a similar category.
The science community is split on the value of ‘nudge paternalism’ in government.
Richard Thaler, who co-authored the book ‘Nudge’ with former White House regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, toldFox News that anyone ‘who would not want such a program … must either be misinformed or misguided.’
‘The goal is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government by using scientifically collected evidence to inform policy designs. What is the alternative?’ Thaler asked.
But Utah State University economist Michael Thomas said he was ‘very skeptical of a team promoting nudge policies’ in Washington.
‘Ultimately, nudging … assumes a small group of people in government know better about choices than the individuals making them.’
The book ‘Nudge’ has become a bible for advocates of ‘choice architecture’ decision-making in government, but detractors call it nanny-state paternalism. Maya Shankar (R) will find herself navigating the controversy
After three years, the British government announced in May that it would seek to find a commercial sponsor and privatize the entire project, making it ‘the first policy unit to spin off from central government,’ according to Cabinet Minister Francis Maude.
Initial reports that the agency is on course to save the government $483 million over five years may make it a valuable takeover target for a private industry seeking to trim its own fat while acquiring the cachet of scientific relevance.
David Halpern, its government director, has claimed that ‘billions will be saved.’
In the U.S., however, there’s no indication that the White House’s ‘nudge unit’ will be anything other than a government enterprise.
That may not bode well for the Obama administration, given the cautionary tale posed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose long-ridiculed ban on large-size fizzy drinks has officially fallen flat.
An appeals court ruled Tuesday that the city’s Board of Health didn’t have the constitutional authority to limit how much soda can go into a restaurant’s cup.
The measure was originally hailed as a perfect example of ‘nudge’ paternalism that would subtly change behaviors without preventing the truly thirsty from buying two cups.
But the ruling will set a precedent that opens up such government interventions to legal nannying of its own from industries whose bottom lines are affected when bureaucracies try to tweak what ordinary people do, and how they do it
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