The Psychological State

The new science of public policy

Introducing the Psychological State

A new era of government?

Some years ago now, Perri 6 observed that, ‘[F]rom the perspective of the twenty first century, the economistic view of government's powers in the twentieth century may come to seem as obsolete as the military and imperial view of earlier centuries’ (Perri 6, 1995: 2). At the heart of Perri 6’s reflections was a belief that the 21st century would see the rise of a more psychologically oriented and socially sensitive form of government. When Perri 6 was writing in 1995 the notion of a more psychologically oriented system of government was largely speculative.

As we now make our collective way through the second decade of the 21st century, the psychological state is taking tangible form. The psychological turn in public policy can be seen in the UK, where a the Behavioural Insights Team (or Nudge Unit) is using the insights of behavioural economic and psychology to advise government on the design of policies ranging from organ donations to the regulation of internet pornography. In France, the government’s Centre d’analyse stratégique has been drawing on neuroscience to inform the development of public health policy. In Australia the Public Service Commission has been promoting the value of behavioural psychology in shaping a range of public policy areas. Meanwhile in the U.S., the Obama administration appointed the arch behavourial economists Cass Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and is now exploring the possibility of establishing its own Nudge Unit.

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Why Now?

One question that we often get asked is ‘why are we seeing the rise of the psychological state at this particular point in time?’ Answering this question actually provides some valuable perspective on the nature and implications of the psychological state. Our short answer to this question is that the psychological state actually reflects a confluence of ideas (largely drawn from micro-economics and behavioural psychology) and real world events. In terms of ideas, there is a tendency to assume that the rising impact of psychology on pubic policy design can be attributed to some fairly recent developments. The publication, in 2008, of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s hugely influential book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness has been interpreted by many as a key moment in the birth of the psychological state. In reality, however, the ideas that lie behind Thaler and Sunstein’s thesis are largely drawn from behavioural psychology and microeconomics, have been around for some time.

It was during the 1940s and 50s, while working at the Illinois Institute of Technology, that Herbert Simon exposed some key shortcomings in prevailing economic theories of human behaviour. Simon’s notion of “bounded rationality” asserted that, counter to neo-classical economic theories of seemingly boundless rationality, human decision-making was actually characterized by key cognitive limitations. These limitations were expressed in both the availability of relevant information, and shortfalls in the necessary analytical skills and time needed to effectively process the information that was available. Ultimately, Simon’s work indicative that a significant amount of human decision making was based not upon rational, contemplative action, but on more intuitive, emotionally-driven forms of motivation. Simon’s concern with the more-than-rational nature of human behaviour would lay the foundations for the emergence of a new academic discipline: behavioural economics. At its heart behavioural economics sought to fuse the interests of economists with the insights of psychologists in order to develop of branch of economics that was able to understand better the more intuitive aspects of human behaviour. However, a further set of ideas would also prove crucial in enabling the political uptake of the insights of behavioural economists.

For some considerable time research in both behavourial psychology and cognitive design has revealed that subtle changes in the nature of the choice environments that surround people could have significant impacts on human behaviour. The insights of behavioural psychology and cognitive design are important to emerging psychological states for specific political reasons. Since at least the nineteenth century, governments within liberal societies have been limited in the potential scope of their actions by the principle of preventing “harm to others.” It is on the basis of this principle that many governments have now banned smoking in enclosed public environments (because of the harm to others caused to passive smoking), but not banned smoking in general (because of the harm it may cause to an individual’s health). What behavioural psychology and cognitive design suggested, however, was that it may be possible for states to intervene in “harm to self issues” (such as smoking and unhealthy eating) without, necessarily undermining individual choice and freedom. Consequently, it was suggested that through the clever use of default settings (such as the size of cups that soft drinks are served in), and the redesigning of choice environments (such as school canteens), it may be possible to the state to encourage healthy behaviours within having to erode personal freedom.

If the psychological state has been informed by the ideas of behavioural economists and cognitive design, the question still remains as to what real world events appear to have actually led to the uptake of these ideas within public policies throughout the world. It is our contention that the past decade has seen a particular confluence of social and environmental crises that have made the insights of various aspects of the psychological sciences attractive to policy makers. These crises can be seen in the context of finance, health and the environment. In relation to finance, the last decade has seen a rapid rise in rates of personal debt in many states throughout the world. The aggregate problems associated with bad debt eventually resulted in the crippling effects of the credit crunch and ensuring recession in European and North American economies. In terms of personal health, unhealthy lifestyles have resulted in the unprecedented rise of obesity and related cases of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The accumulated costs of treating lifestyle related illnesses has put significant strain on publically funding health care systems such as the National Health Service in Britain. Finally, in the context of the environment, scientific reports show that our collective addiction to the burning of fossil fuels could create significant near future problems for the healthy functioning of our planetary biosphere. We claim that the interconnected crises of finance, public health and climate change have provided the impetus in and through which the ideas of the psychological sciences have gained political support.

Over the coming weeks we will post a series of blogs which seek to expose and critically analyze various aspects of the psychological state. You can also find out more about our research in a recently published book, Jones, R. Pykett, J. and Whitehead, M. (2013) Changing Behaviours: On the Rise of the Psychological State (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham). 

Mark Whitehead, Ph.D. is a Professor of Human Geography at Aberystwyth University (Wales), who is interested in the connections between psychology and public policy.

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