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Nudging Conservatives to Harness Behavioral Science

Friday, May 3, 2013

While liberals are deploying behavioral science with stunning results, conservatives have failed to follow up on their success three decades ago with the psychology of ‘broken windows.’ Here are several policy initiatives with which to begin.

In 1982, social scientist James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published their “Broken Windows” article in The Atlantic, an idea that launched a savvy assault on crime. One unrepaired broken window, they posited, signals a community’s indifference and leads to many broken windows. “Vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers — the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility — are lowered by actions that seem to signal that ‘no one cares.’”

Fighting crime became a Republican wedge issue, and the psychology of broken windows served as the weapon of choice. Rudy Giuliani wielded it most famously as mayor of New York City by vigorously policing minor crimes. In 1998, Giuliani said, “Obviously, murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes. But they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other.”

It seemed to work. Thirty years after “Broken Windows,” some of New York City’s citizens aren’t even aware of its crime-ridden past.

The anecdotal evidence of New York’s success has been buttressed by research published in the journals Science and Criminology: a disorderly environment leads to more — and more serious — disorderly behavior. It’s an example of what behavioral scientists call the “priming effect” — exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus. Broken windows, and other repeated signs of societal deterioration, prime people to believe disorderly behavior is acceptable, and they act accordingly.

The broken windows story is a true conservative success rooted in social science. Yet since then, especially in recent years, conservatives have not followed up with similar public policy formulation and implementation. Meanwhile, the Left is deploying knowledge from emerging fields, such as applied behavioral science, with stunning success.

Witness the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Both times, President Obama’s camp employed what Time and The New York Times called a “dream team”: a consortium of psychologists and behavioral scientists whose research influenced messaging, daily operations, canvassing, and addressing of rumors.

Suppose public assistance were in some way tied to high school graduation?

In 2008, this team included authors of some of the most compelling books on the topic of applied behavioral science — Dan Ariely of Duke University (Predictably Irrational), Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow), and Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (Nudge). Sunstein, in particular, was well-known to the Obama team. In Obama’s first term, he served in the White House as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where he oversaw the implementation of countless government regulations and was able to apply behavioral science in ways that affected millions of Americans. In fact, Sunstein details that experience in his just-released book, Simpler.

“It turns out the Democrats are not only light years ahead of Republicans when it comes to harnessing the power of data to target messages — they are also light years ahead when it comes to harnessing the power of behavioral science to persuade and motivate voters,” wrote one of President George W. Bush’s speechwriters, Marc Thiessen, in a post-2012 election blog entry. One might add that the Democrats are also light years ahead in using behavioral science to implement their policy goals.


In Nudge, Sunstein and Thaler advocate for what they call “libertarian paternalism.” They argue that policymakers, whether or not they realize it, are “choice architects” responsible for “organizing the context in which people make decisions.” By recognizing human tendencies to errors and biases, these architects can present choices in a way that will “nudge” people to choose what the architect has decided is the best choice.

For example, Nudge opens with the challenge faced by the director of a school’s food service, who has to decide how to organize the food in the cafeteria, knowing that food placement influences the children’s food choices. Placing healthy food at the beginning of the line and at eye level “nudges,” but doesn’t actually force, the students to make healthier food choices. For the authors, doing what’s best for the kids nutritionally trumps maximizing profits for the cafeteria.

Other behaviors that Sunstein and Thaler would like the government to nudge citizens toward include making organ donations (by recommending an “opt out” option rather than the explicit consent system currently in effect), wearing motorcycle helmets (by requiring a special license for those who choose to not wear one), and using credit cards more responsibly (by forcing credit card companies to send customers an annual statement that lists and totals all fees incurred in the course of the past year).

Sunstein and Thaler’s repeated invoking of “libertarian paternalism” is an attempt to win over people from across the political spectrum. While the authors clearly lean liberal (despite their self-described “libertarian” orientation), they emphasize over and over that no individual is ever forced to do anything he doesn’t want to do, which is designed to placate conservatives suspicious of the authors’ liberal motives. Similarly, the pair convey throughout Nudge their simple desire to help people make better decisions. The result, however, is that these decisions advance the authors’ robust view of government’s role in Americans’ lives.

No wonder conservatives tend to reflexively reject what the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson called “the governing theory of Obama’s nanny state,” where “boobs” (meaning the mass of humanity) are protected by the all-knowing behaviorists.

We’ll leave it to others to judge Sunstein and Thaler’s “libertarian paternalism.” The far more important question is whether conservatives should be leaving behind a powerful tool — applied behavioral science — that liberals are actively harnessing, and conservatives themselves harnessed with “Broken Windows” more than 30 years ago.


Conservatives should be thinking now about building at least a small corps of social psychologists and behavioral scientists who could help the next conservative president govern as effectively as possible.

A growing body of compelling research shows that sometimes we follow the “Homer Simpson” in our minds, as Ariely likes to say. In fact, we very often behave irrationally, but in predictable ways. According to Ariely, if we recognize where we fall short and make mistakes in our rational thinking, then we can improve the world.

The 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, a patriarch of applied behavioral science, posits this premise: we each possess two systems of thought, called (unsurprisingly) System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional. System 2 is analytical, deliberative, and logical. Too often we make decisions based on the biases of System 1 — even when we think we’re using System 2.

To illustrate his point, Kahneman cites myriad questions such as this one: a ball and a bat together cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Very predictably, the initial System 1 response is typically “10 cents.” It’s fast, intuitive — and wrong. Only when System 2 is engaged, and acts as a check on System 1, would a person determine the correct answer is “five cents.”

In addition to System 1 and System 2, behavioral scientists have discerned and labeled numerous patterns in people’s intuitive decision-making — such as “priming effects,” “loss aversion,” and “what you see is all there is.” By recognizing these seemingly irrational phenomena, humans potentially can understand their errors in judgment and avoid them in the future.

The understanding of these tendencies can also be deployed to “nudge” people toward certain behaviors and away from others. “People have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option,” write Sunstein and Thaler in the introduction to Nudge. “Research shows that whatever the default choices are, many people stick with them.... Two important lessons can be drawn from this research. First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed.”

So, if conservatives could harness that same power, what would they do with it?

Perhaps conservatives would nudge people to stay in school and get married. Maybe they’d nudge them to save more for retirement and take more personal responsibility for their health care spending. But first they’d need to come to terms with the uncomfortable idea of government using these tools.

Indeed, while conservatives rightfully are wary of government nudging (which might appear to some as shoving), there are several policy initiatives where conservatives should pull the behavioral science tool kit off the shelf and start using it, because it brings them closer to the policy objectives they want to see realized, which would benefit society. And by continuing to not use these tools, they’re ceding more to the Left than they need to.

Below are a handful of policy examples that outline how applied behavioral science could advance conservative principles on far-ranging policies related to marriage, education, retirement savings, and Medicare.

Promoting Marriage

Marriage is a declining institution in the United States — just over half of American adults were married in 2011, as opposed to 72 percent in 1960. At the same time, more than 40 percent of children in America were born to unmarried mothers, compared with 7 percent in 1964. The U.S. media portrays a glamorous and pleasurable culture of hookups, casual sex, and friends with benefits. The commitment of marriage can be tough; many marriages, of course, end in divorce. But consider the following:

  • Married couples have, over time, higher family income and significantly greater net worth than those with other living arrangements (such as single parenthood or cohabitation).
  • Children living with married parents are less likely to live in poverty.
  • Children of married couples tend to have better grades and health than children in other living arrangements.
  • Children living with married parents are less likely to suffer from psychological disorders, suicide attempts, substance abuse, and other disorders.

Marriage is better for the health of parents and children — their physical health, their financial health, and their mental and academic health.

Even with this evidence that marriage provides a higher standard of living than single parenting or cohabiting, federal policies have created curious disincentives for marriage. For instance, certain welfare benefits, such as Medicaid, S-CHIP, and food stamps usually phase out or stop once a recipient marries and spousal income is added to the mix. “In these cases, receiving one more dollar of earnings can strip a household of several thousand dollars of benefits,” according to a 2005 analysis by Adam Carasso and C. Eugene Steuerle in “Marriage and Child Well-being.”

In 2014, the Affordable Care Act will provide a tax credit for qualifying individuals to purchase health insurance. But married couples with the same combined income as cohabiting couples will receive $1,500-$10,000 less in premium support. A Republican study estimates that only 14 percent of ACA premium support will go to married couples.

Getting married potentially means a loss of benefit income, so some couples opt not to marry. Occasionally couples even divorce and cohabit to take advantage of the greater benefits. “Cohabiting — that is, not getting married — has become the tax shelter of the poor,” write Carasso and Steuerle.

Rather than leave this default to chance, why not create a choice architecture whereby the ‘default’ option is always a private plan?

Marriage has become something certain groups can’t afford. And it looks like government is providing some nudges in the wrong direction.

Instead, could policymakers alter the choice architecture so that marriage is encouraged rather than discouraged? Actually, there are quite a few ideas being put forward, and importantly, they comport with what behavioral scientists suggest will work. Here’s a sampling:

To limit or remove nudges toward single parenthood or cohabitation, federal and state programs could continue awarding certain welfare benefits for a period of time after marriage, with a gradual phase-out rather than an abrupt cut-off for a couple that ties the knot. Also, subsidies could be based on individual wages rather than on combined spousal income.

Pro-marriage messaging could be made a part of existing subsidy programs. This would be done to help compensate for the psychological deficit known as “WYSIATI,” or “What you see is all there is.” In other words, when it comes to decision-making, humans put disproportionate emphasis on what they see around them, not what they fail to see. Someone who sees a container of ice cream labeled “90 percent fat free,” for example, may not stop to think that the dessert is 10 percent fat.

In some communities, if all that people see are single-family households, that’s what they will think is desirable and normal. Even Sunstein and Thaler make the point in Nudge that “Teenage girls who see that other teenagers are having children are more likely to become pregnant themselves.”

To correct that, marriage must also be visible, and there’s a way to do this.

As Chuck Donovan wrote in “A Marshall Plan for Marriage: Rebuilding Our Shattered Homes,” “Pro-marriage messages are among the allowable uses of funds in many programs. Given how critical marriage is to every indicator of individual well-being — including employment and earnings, avoidance of delinquency, school dropout, and abuse — marriage promotion should be a routine public value. The value of marriage should become part of ‘what everyone knows,’ much as the unhealthy effects of smoking and obesity are almost universally understood.”

Marriage and relationship education could also be more prominent in school sex education programs — again, recognizing that marriage has health implications.

Policy, messaging, and education programs could work to create an environment in which marriage becomes the “norm” for family formation. In fact, doing that would likely have a powerful effect, as it would help “prime” people to desire a traditional ideal of family.

While there is likely to be significant pushback from those who view marriage promotion as an attempt to roll back the sexual revolution, the health and economic benefits of marriage for couples — and especially for children — should override these objections.

Boosting High School Graduation Rates

Improving high school graduation rates is a goal both liberals and conservatives can agree on. Dropouts earn, over a lifetime, an estimated $260,000 less than high school graduates. People with lower levels of schooling tend to have more health problems. And high school dropouts tend to have higher crime and incarceration rates. Society bears the brunt of the burden with lowered tax revenues, higher public spending on welfare and healthcare, and of course the societal costs of crime and imprisonment. A recent study by the public policy group Civic Enterprises estimates that dropouts cost $1.8 billion just in lost tax revenue each year.

Clearly society, the state, and most importantly the individual have an interest in ensuring that students graduate from high school. Raising graduation rates could accomplish many conservative goals at once — helping to break the cycle of dependency, reducing federal and state spending, increasing the number of wage earners, and broadening the base of taxpayers.

Haidt asked approximately 1,000 attendees at a convention of social psychologists how many of them are conservative. The grand total: three.

For students who find high school pointless or a waste of time, knowing that the welfare net will catch them can make dropping out look feasible. But suppose public assistance were in some way tied to high school graduation? Benefits could be restricted for those who drop out. We know from behavioral science research that avoiding a loss is a powerful motivator. Or, as Professor Kahneman notes in his chapter on prospect theory, “losses loom larger than gains.”

Indeed, facing a potential “loss” of benefits could provide the nudge needed to keep young people in school, providing them with a better chance at acquiring knowledge and skills that could obviate their need for the assistance in the first place.

It’s great to nudge kids to stay in school, but what if those schools are not so great? In Nudge, Sunstein and Thaler grant an entire chapter to crafting choice architecture in education. One of their ideas refers to choice in K-12 education, and they paraphrase Milton Friedman’s argument this way: “The best way to improve our children’s schools is to introduce competition. If schools compete, kids win.” They acknowledge the fears of opponents of school choice, but point to the many successes of such experiments, not only in student performance, but also in the quality of the public schools facing competition.

Simply providing a choice is not in itself a nudge to a better decision. Sunstein and Thaler propose ways to help parents make better choices for their children. The neighborhood public school is, in effect, the default option; opting out, if it’s even possible, often requires sifting through bewildering reams of complicated and often useless information.

Why not do what the authors suggest and present helpful information simply — such as ranking public schools by test scores on fact sheets? Charlotte, NC, tried this with a random sampling of parents, and found that parents with the simpler fact sheets chose the schools with the better test scores — and if their children were able to switch to the better schools, their performance improved.

Expanding Retirement Savings for Low Savers

One of the most powerful insights from behavioral science — that inertia in human decision-making can be harnessed — undergirds a centerpiece of bi-partisan legislation passed by a conservative Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.

The Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) made it easier for corporations to automatically enroll their workers in 401(k) programs with an option to opt-out, as opposed to having the employees remain outside the company-sponsored plan until they proactively opted in.

Americans like this approach. An October 2009 survey by Prudential Insurance found that 74 percent of American workers would rather be automatically enrolled into a 401(k) plan than use the traditional method of being invited to sign up; 65 percent even support automatic contribution escalation.

The PPA serves as a model for economic policymaking rooted in psychological research. And building upon its success, a proposal advanced by David John (then at the Heritage Foundation) would make it easier for tens of millions of other Americans to come closer to the goal of retirement security.

John, in partnership with other analysts, advocates for a retirement tool called the Automatic IRA. In short, employees of businesses that do not offer 401(k)-style investments would be enrolled automatically in an IRA, where they would have the ability to save up to $5,000 per year tax free — unless they opt out.

Could policymakers alter the choice architecture so that marriage is encouraged rather than discouraged?

As John explained in testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee in April 2012, “Automatic IRAs would provide a relatively simple, cost-effective way to increase retirement security for the 75 million Americans working for employers (usually small businesses) that do not offer a retirement plan. Many of these workers are part-time employees of smaller businesses, women, members of minority groups, or all three. The Automatic IRA would enable these employees to save for retirement by allowing them to regularly transfer amounts from their paycheck to an IRA.”

Conservatives, rightfully mindful of onerous government mandates, should know that the Automatic IRA would not impose a burden upon employers. As John told Congress:

They need do little more than they do now with the income and payroll taxes they deduct from an employee’s paycheck and send to the IRS. In this case, employers will deduct some of the employees’ own money and send it to the private sector funds manager that administers the employer’s Automatic IRA. The employer would select that private sector manager from an online list located at a central website, and if the employer does not wish to choose a provider, that company would be assigned at random to a funds manager that is willing to accept all comers. Because an IRA is personal savings, employers would not be required — or even allowed — to match these savings in any way. Employers would also have no liability for determining if employees are eligible for the program or face the complexity of ERISA [the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ] and other regulations that govern a 401(k) plan.

Given the constituencies that conservatives have been struggling to appeal to, there would also seem to be a political benefit to promoting the automatic characteristics of these IRAs. John notes, “Automatic enrollment is a key part of the Automatic IRA because it especially helps those groups who are most likely to undersave: women, minorities, younger workers, and low- to moderate-income workers. Experience shows [with automatic enrollment in 401(k)s] that these groups move from very low participation rates that range in percentages from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties to participation rates that reach the mid-eighties.”

Promoting Private Options for Medicare

The behavioral axiom that losses loom far larger than gains in people’s minds should animate conservative thinking about Medicare. Conservatives saw the upside and downside of this phenomenon in 2006 and 2010.

After voting for the Medicare Part D drug benefit and being instrumental in its creation, congressional Republicans thought that they would win the affection of seniors who would start receiving the benefit in 2006, as well as that of their grateful families. Yet in that year’s midterm election, Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress. The “gain” of the new drug benefit was not enough to overcome losses voters saw elsewhere in society (the so-called “culture of corruption” in Congress, concerns about the Iraq War, etc.).

Four years later, Republicans found that the threat of loss was far more politically effective. Democrats promised new health-care benefits. But when Republicans informed seniors that hundreds of billions of Medicare dollars would be used to fund Obamacare, seniors were animated by a fear that their benefits would be cut. They took out their anger on Democrats and booted them from the House majority.

Going forward, one of the great opportunities to apply social psychology to conservative policy-making lies in Medicare reform. The latest plan advanced by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, which entails creating a “premium support” system tied to the private insurance market, would revolutionize the way seniors shop for and buy health insurance, potentially reining in the program’s exploding costs. While it stands little chance to become law during President Obama’s administration, premium support represents a valuable what-if scenario that conservatives should continue to refine in anticipation of a Republican administration.

Policy, messaging, and education programs could work to create an environment in which marriage becomes the 'norm' for family formation.

Traditional fee-for-service Medicare operates as a one-size-fits-all program, with little choice in terms of benefits, and little incentive on the part of seniors — or their doctors — to contain costs. The Ryan plan would insert enhanced competition into the healthcare system by allowing seniors to choose either traditional fee-for-service Medicare or to direct funds from the federal government to pay for their health insurance provided by a private company.

From a conservative perspective, these alternatives should not be weighted equally. Fee-for-service is costly, whereas the market competition of premium support should reduce costs without reducing quality of care. Traditional Medicare is cumbersome and frequently not profitable for physicians, who often refuse Medicare patients or limit the number they will take; premium support could increase doctor availability for senior care.

Under Ryan’s plan, traditional Medicare and premium support have equal footing, “competing” with one another for seniors’ business. Conservatives presume that private plans will prove more enticing to seniors, given the added program features and benefits they provide when compared to traditional Medicare, as well as likely lower premiums for private plans. So far, so good.

But here’s where the true opportunity lies: Some future seniors might “choose not to choose” any Medicare plan — and end up with a “default” plan. As currently envisioned by policymakers, those future seniors would be automatically enrolled in the lowest-cost plan available to them, which, depending on their region, could be traditional Medicare or a private plan.

Rather than leave this default to chance, why not create a choice architecture whereby the “default” option is always a private plan? (Of course anyone who finds himself unhappy with that plan could later opt for traditional Medicare.) This architecture would signal to future seniors that private plans are more desirable, since if they “choose to not choose,” they will end up in a private plan (assuming one is available to them), and not traditional Medicare.


Knowing all this, what should conservatives do next?

Given the results of last November’s election and the re-evaluation it has prompted on the right, there’s a golden opportunity to infuse conservative policy discussions with a knowledge of, and appreciation for, applied behavioral science.

Two of the driving personalities in the conservative think tank world have taken steps in the right direction on this front. By conveying their concern about how conservatives make their case to the public, they’ve signaled they are open to new formulations of conservative policy.

Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed on March 4, 2013, in which he argued that conservatives need to pay attention to the work of New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of the best-seller The Righteous Mind . Brooks’s point is that Haidt’s groundbreaking research — which categorizes which moral arguments appeal to people of varying ideologies — should have a direct bearing on which issues conservatives focus on, and how those are messaged.

And Jim DeMint, the new president of the Heritage Foundation, committed in the Washington Post on January 10, 2013, to an ambitious research agenda by his organization. It will “start this year to help the conservative movement understand how Americans from all walks of life perceive public policy issues and how to communicate conservative ideas and solutions.” While not promising specifically to promote social psychology or behavioral science, DeMint seems to be leaving the door open to new and innovative outreach strategies, whatever their origin.

An overwhelming skew toward liberals among the ranks of social psychologists likely accounts for the progress made by liberals in applying their discipline to policy-making and messaging.

This is very welcome news. If both Brooks and DeMint want to take the next logical step beyond getting the all-important conservative messaging right — and by extension advancing conservative public policy — they might consider providing a more prominent home for social psychology and applied behavioral science research in their respective think tanks.

If they welcome these disciplines into their organizations, and find a permanent place for them, that might inspire young conservatives to pursue these fields and help advance them over the course of the next several years. Indeed, the absence of conservatives in these disciplines is dismaying. According to a February 7, 2011, article in the New York Times, Haidt asked approximately 1,000 attendees at a convention of social psychologists how many of them are conservative. The grand total: three.

An overwhelming skew toward liberals among the ranks of social psychologists likely accounts for the progress made by liberals in applying their discipline to policy-making and messaging — and the absence among conservatives leaves a clear deficit. Conservatives should be thinking now, not in 2017 or 2021, about building at least a small corps of social psychologists and behavioral scientists who could help the next conservative president govern as effectively as possible — and help him get elected in the first place.

Perhaps if young conservative researchers knew that social psychologists and behavioral scientists were welcome at leading think tanks, polling shops, advertising agencies, and PR firms, they’d be more likely to study these disciplines in college and pursue them as a career.

Once a role for these social scientists is established at conservative organizations, the next step is to produce original research that gets used by their bosses in media, public opinion research, and government. Ultimately, though, the real mark of success will be whether the powerful tools derived from social psychology and applied behavioral science help conservatives — from activists to officeholders — implement their vision for America.

Rich Thau is the president and founder of Manhattan-based Presentation Testing, Inc. Celeste Gregory is a freelance writer and editor.

FURTHER READING: Lazar Berman and Daniel Berman write "Why Young Voters Won’t Tip the Gay Marriage Debate Anytime Soon," Lee Harris asks "Can the GOP Be Saved? The Myth of the Demographic Fix," and Andrew G. Biggs asks "Liberals or Conservatives: Who’s Really Close-Minded?"


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group


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