- Editors’ note
We welcome new and returning readers to Behavioral Science & Policy. This issue presents a new perspective on behavioral nudges, provides original empirical research on savings and on managing technology’s risks, and spotlights three reviews on how behavioral insights can guide interventions meant to promote ethical behavior.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in applying insights from behavioral science to the design of policies that promote desired behaviors while preserving freedom of choice—an effort largely inspired by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein’s landmark book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Much of this work focuses on modifying aspects of the architecture of choice environments; these aspects can include how options are described, how supporting information is presented, the ways people are asked to indicate their preferences or take action, and which option is designated the default. Although choice architecture manipulations frequently succeed, they sometimes fail in surprising ways. In the first article in this issue, Job M. T. Krijnen, David Tannenbaum, and Craig R. Fox argue that policymakers would probably have more success if the traditional notion of choice architecture were updated to account for the relationship between decisionmakers and the choice architect. This relationship plays out in two major ways. First, contextual cues in the choice presentation often prompt decisionmakers to try to discern the beliefs and intentions of the choice architect. Second, decisionmakers may consider the messages that their own behaviors could implicitly communicate to the choice architect and other observers. The article provides ideas that may enable policy designers to anticipate the impact of this “social sensemaking” on the effectiveness of behavioral policy interventions.
A 2016 survey by the Federal Reserve1 found that nearly half of American adults would not be able to come up with $400 to cover an emergency expense without selling something or borrowing the money. One opportune moment to try to help citizens prepare for such emergencies is when they receive their annual tax refunds; according to the IRS,2 most American receive refunds averaging a few thousand dollars. Michal Grinstein-Weiss, Cynthia Cryder, Mathieu R. Despard, Dana C. Perantie, Jane E. Oliphant, and Dan Ariely report on a large-scale field experiment administered to low- and moderate-income taxpayers completing their tax returns using TurboTax software. The authors found that by making the option to deposit refunds into a savings account more salient and bolstering this approach with a brief message about the importance of saving, they could substantially increase the tax refund amount that taxpayers directed into savings accounts. In two online follow-up experiments, the authors teased apart the effects of the various intervention elements and found that choice architecture had the greatest impact, but messaging also mattered. Looking at the choice architecture itself, they showed that merely offering the option of directing part of a refund to a savings account was not sufficient to prompt action, whereas offering multiple options that highlighted the option of saving significantly increased the number of refunds and total amount of money directed to savings accounts. Likewise, making it easier for consumers to direct their refunds to savings accounts through a single click increased the number of refunds and total amount of money allocated to savings.
The second empirical report examines how to approach policies for phasing out organizations in high-reliability industries, which are prone to accidents unless a great deal of vigilance is exercised. Markus Schöbel, Ralph Hertwig, and Jörg Rieskamp address, in particular, whether safety risks increase in nuclear plants that are slated to close. The authors explore whether management and employees knowing that a plant is closing leads to the kind of endgame behavior predicted by game theory—that is, to an increase in self-interested behavior as the closure approaches. Using a multimethod approach, the authors first reviewed public records to glean the impact of Germany’s 2001 and 2011 announcements of nuclear power phaseouts. They found signs of endgame behavior in public reports of increased stress between utilities and the government. And they found mixed evidence relating to endgame behavior in so-called...