Executive Order Promotes Use of Behavioral Science in Legislation


On Tuesday, September 15, President Barack Obama signed an executive order promoting the use of behavioral science data in policy making and the design of government programs. The order states,

“Where Federal policies have been designed to reflect behavioral science insights, they have substantially improved outcomes for the individuals, families, communities, and businesses those policies serve.”

While the President’s usual detractors have already started spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories (it’s easy to take advantage of the complex language used in the executive order), this order has the potential to drastically change the face of the government for the better. There is a huge body of research in behavioral science that can be applied to make the government more accessible to the people.

Let’s look at a few excerpts of the order, and I’ll explain a few details:

“A growing body of evidence demonstrates that behavioral science insights — research findings from fields such as behavioral economics and psychology about how people make decisions and act on them — can be used to design government policies to better serve the American people.”

Behavioral science is perhaps most directly defined as the study of the causes and effects of human behavior. It includes, but is not limited to:

  • Psychology (the study of the mind and human behavior)
  • Sociology (the study of social behavior and culture)
  • Behavioral Economics (the study of human emotion and behavior’s effect on the economy)

Data in any of these fields could significantly impact the way the federal government interacts with its citizens.

“Section 1. Behavioral Science Insights Policy Directive.

(a) Executive departments and agencies (agencies) are encouraged to:

(i) identify policies, programs, and operations where applying behavioral science insights may yield substantial improvements in public welfare, program outcomes, and program cost effectiveness;”

The main idea here is to use behavioral science to streamline government systems. The executive order mentions that use of behavioral science has previously helped streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), making college “more financially accessible for millions of students.” Under the executive order, the government will begin looking for ways to further implement behavioral science data to aid the public.

(ii) develop strategies for applying behavioral science insights to programs and, where possible, rigorously test and evaluate the impact of these insights;

It’s the scientific method, plain and simple.

(iii) recruit behavioral science experts to join the Federal Government as necessary to achieve the goals of this directive;

Prominent scientists in the media like Neil Degrass Tyson and Bill Nye have had much to say about this. The government has, in recent years, pushed scientists out of key positions that need a scientific viewpoint, or excluded them altogether. I can cite example after example of politicians with authority and influence,¬†having no scientific knowledge to speak of, leading to the spread of very dangerous misinformation. Many of these individuals are even anti-science, denying climate change, evolution, and demonizing healthcare. The inclusion of actual scientists in government will be an automatic boon to our country’s progress.

(i) [agencies shall] identify opportunities to help…¬†access public programs and benefits by, as appropriate, streamlining processes that may otherwise limit or delay participation – for example, removing administrative hurdles, shortening wait times, and simplifying forms;

You don’t need to be a behavioral scientist to know that even the most patient computer user will hang up on tech support after being on hold for three hours. The same goes for the government; people will be better prepared to receive help when they need it when the process doesn’t require a law degree and three months’ worth of forms to complete.

(iii) identify programs that offer choices and carefully consider how the presentation and structure of those choices, including the order, number, and arrangement of options, can most effectively promote public welfare, as appropriate, giving particular consideration to the selection and setting of default options;

I’ve studied Psychology for three years now (officially), and have done some research work in the past. The way you word questions, order options, and format responses can have a significant impact on the results. Paying attention to these subtle cues (so subtle we almost never notice them) will very likely improve productivity and accuracy, especially if the form or survey in question is long and drawn out.

(iv) review elements of their policies and programs that are designed to encourage or make it easier for Americans to take specific actions, such as saving for retirement or completing education programs…

Simply prompting (or nudging) someone with the idea of acting in their own self-interest and/or in the interest of others can increase the likelihood of compliance. How many people only register to vote because the option is available when they’re renewing their driver’s license?

While it’s hard to predict the exact impact this new order will have, utilizing and trusting science to make significant decisions is always a good move. Psychology and other behavioral sciences have come a long way in the last fifty years, and we understand ourselves better than we ever have before. It’s well past time to put that information to use for bettering our country as a whole.

David Pham is a proud Gaytheist and Gaymer, and an Iraq Veteran who staunchly supports LGBT rights and the separation of church and state. When not reading or researching, he's usually found with his nose in his Kindle or Wii U Gamepad. He studies Psychology with the intent to provide therapy to Veterans and teach at the college level.