Behavioural approaches are really about “restoring common sense to economics”. These were the provocative words of Richard Thaler – Professor Behavioral Science and Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and co-author of Nudge – while speaking via video link at BX2014, the world’s first public policy behavioural insights conference, which concluded in Sydney on 3 June. The interplay between orthodox economics, psychology, and so-called ‘common sense’ was a recurring theme of the two-day conference, which brought together leading academics and practitioners from across the world to discuss behavioural innovations in public policy.
The conference included talks from many of the world’s leading thinkers in behavioural economics and policy making. Alongside Richard Thaler was his co-author,Cass Sunstein, and Professors Max Bazerman, Iris Bohnet, David Laibson, Michael Norton, and Michael Hiscox from Harvard’s Behavioral Insights Group. They were joined by those at the policy making end of the spectrum, with BIT Chief Executive, Dr David Halpern, Dr Maya Shankar from the White House, and Dr Thia Jang Ping and Mr Donald Low from the Government of Singapore. Reflecting Australia’s growing interest in applying behavioural approaches to public policy, BX2014 also brought together senior public servants from the Government of New South Wales , as well as representatives from private sector firms, such as Facebook.
The conference covered a range of topics, from the merits of design thinking and the hope of big data, to the importance of RCTs in driving evidence-based decision-making. But it was perhaps the ethos that underpins behaviourally-informed policy that anchored the discussions. Participants challenged speakers on the centrality of ethics and transparency in designing nudges, and the need to elevate a culture of experimentation in the public sector. Speakers also highlighted that the empirically-focussed approach to public policy that behavioural insights demands requires humility: we have to accept that context is critical to the success of any intervention, so we must admit that we don’t really know what will work until we have tried it and tested it to a high degree of scientific rigour. This way, by taking account of sometimes seemingly trivial details of implementation, public policy can be delivered better and with greater efficiency.
It’s fair to say that the immediate success of the conference has inspired its continuation –Behavioural Exchange 2015 is due to be held in London.
Related coverage in the media:
-Interview with David Halpern on ABC radio
-Interview with Iris Bohnet on ABC TV
-Article by David Halpern and Max Bazerman in the Australian Financial Review
-Article by Mike Pottenger in The Conversation