Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Peter A. Ubel M.D.

Scientocracy: Policy making that reflects human nature

A government of the people, but informed by scientists.

The key to good policymaking is to understand human nature.

Want to increase how much money people save? You better know what they will do if you change the tax code. Want to reduce the threat of terrorism? All the security in the world won't suffice if you don't, at the same time, find ways to confront the behavioral forces that lead people to commit acts of terror. Want to make health care affordable to all? Policy won't achieve this goal unless policymakers understand the ways doctors and patients make decisions about what healthcare services to use.

In my new blog -- Scientocracy -- I plan to explore important policy debates through the lens of human behavior. I intend to not only show why psychological science is relevant to a whole range of policy debates, but to also imagine what policies might look like if they were better aligned with human nature.

Who am I to write such a blog?

I am a physician at the University of Michigan, with undergraduate training in philosophy, and without a single psychology course to my credit. Not promising, I know. But actually, after sitting in on a behavioral economics class at Carnegie Mellon University 15 years ago, I have spent the majority of my professional career studying how people make health care decisions -- how patients choose between, say, chemotherapy and radiation; how surgeons decide whether a patient is a good candidate for liver transplants; and how policymakers decide whether a new drug brings enough health benefits to justify its staggering price.

Through my research, I have learned a lot about the irrational and unconscious forces that drive people's decisions. And I have seen what can happen when leaders implement policies that ignore these forces.

The one constant in my professional career, besides practicing medicine, has been my focus on decision-making and policy. For example, my first book, Pricing Life, was published as part of a series on bioethics, but the book deals as much with moral psychology as it does with philosophy.

And my newly released book, Free-Market Madness: Why Human Nature Is at Odds with Economics -- and Why It Matters, is a critique of libertarian extremists who believe that most of society's problems (obesity, crime, drug use...) can be solved by deregulation. I show why such free-market evangelism is at odds with human nature, and why psychologically informed policies -- ones that recognize both the rational and irrational side of human nature -- would rein in the excesses of free markets to account for human imperfection.

When I talk about Scientocracy, then, I'm not talking about a world ruled by behavioral scientists, or any other kind of scientists. Instead, I am imagining a government of the people, but informed by scientists. A world where people don't argue endlessly about whether educational vouchers will improve schools, whether gun control will reduce crime, or whether health savings accounts can lower health care expenditures,... but one instead where science has a chance to show us whether vouchers, gun control laws, and health savings accounts work and, if so, under what conditions.

As a new President assumes leadership in the United States, I hope to add to the chorus of voices calling for government policies that are informed by a solid scientific understanding of human nature, in all its wonderful messiness.

To learn more about me or my new book, Free Market Madness, check out my website: .