... Obama is betting his presidency on our ability to change our behavior. His top priorities — the economy, health care and energy — all depend on it. We need to spend more money now to avert a short-term depression, then save more money later to secure our long-term economic future. We need to consume less energy in order to reduce our oil imports and carbon emissions as well as our household expenses. We need to quit smoking, lay off the Twinkies and avoid other risky behaviors that both damage our personal health and boost the costs of care that are ravaging the nation's fiscal health. Basically, we need to make better choices — about mortgages and credit cards, insurance and retirement plans — so we won't need bailouts down the road.
The problem, as anyone with a sweet tooth, an alcoholic relative or a maxed-out Visa card knows, is that old habits die hard. Temptation is strong. We are weak. We've got plenty of gurus, talk-show hosts and celebrity spokespeople badgering us to save energy, lose weight and live within our means, but we're still addicted to oil, junk food and debt. It's fair to ask whether we're even capable of changing.
But the latest science suggests that yes, we can. Studies of all kinds of human frailties are revealing how to help people change — not only through mandates or financial incentives but also via subtler nudges that preserve our freedom to make choices while encouraging us to make better ones, from automatic-enrollment 401(k) plans that require us to opt out if we don't want to save for retirement to smart meters that warn us about how much energy we're using. These nudges can trigger huge changes; in a 2001 study, only 36% of women joined a 401(k) plan when they had to sign up for it, but when they had to opt out, 86% participated.
It's no coincidence that Obama's budget proposes an ambitious program of automatic-enrollment pensions for workplaces that don't offer 401(k)s or that his stimulus package has billions of dollars for smart meters. Behavioral science — especially the burgeoning field of behavioral economics that has been popularized by Freakonomics, The Wisdom of Crowds, Predictably Irrational, Nudge and Animal Spirits, which is the new must-read in Obamaworld — is already shaping dozens of Administration policies. "It really applies to all the big areas where we need change," says Obama budget director Peter Orszag.
Orszag has been an unabashed behavioral geek ever since he read that 401(k) study. His deputy, Jeff Liebman of Harvard, is a noted behavioral economist, as are White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee of the University of Chicago, Assistant Treasury Secretary nominee Alan Krueger of Princeton and several other key aides. (Cass) Sunstein has been nominated to be Obama's regulatory czar. Even National Economic Council director Larry Summers has done work on behavioral finance. And Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan is organizing an outside network of behavioral experts to provide the Administration with policy ideas.
The first sign of the behavioralist takeover surfaced on April 1, when Americans began receiving $116 billion worth of payroll-tax cuts from the stimulus package. Obama isn't sending us one-time rebate checks. Reason: his goal is to jump-start consumer spending, and research has shown we're more likely to save money rather than spend it when we get it in a big chunk. Instead, Obama made sure the tax cuts will be paid out through decreased withholding, so our regular paychecks will grow a bit and we'll be less likely to notice the windfall. The idea, an aide explains, is to manipulate us into spending the extra cash.....
Behavioral economics doesn't ignore the market forces that were all-powerful in Econ 101, but it harnesses forces traditionally consigned to Psych 101. Behaviorists have always known we don't really act like the superrational Homo economicus of the neoclassical-model world. Years of studies of patients who don't take their meds, grownups who have unsafe sex, and other flawed decision makers have chronicled the irrationality of Homo sapiens. Some of our foibles are quite specific, like overvaluing things we have, overeating food in larger containers and overestimating the probability of improbable events — the quirk that made the Meet Barack Obama fundraising lottery such a smart idea. But in general, we're ignorant, shortsighted and biased toward the status quo....
"We truly want to make better choices," explains Yale economist Dean Karlan. He's a co-founder of stickK.com, where users make binding "commitment contracts" to forfeit money to friends or charities — or even "anti-charities" they despise — if they fail to quit smoking, lose weight or meet other goals they set for themselves. "But we need help to get us there."
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Behavioural economics and the Obama administration
Time Magazine had an interesting article earlier this month on how the Obama administration is making use of behavioural economics in policy formation.