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Tim Harford on behavioural economics in public policy

28th Mar 2014

Last weekend, Tim Harford published this article in the Financial Times on the use of behavioural economics in public policy.

Using our recent organ donation trial as an example – where we tested eight variants of a similar message to find out which was most effective at increasing the sign-up rate to the organ donation register – he highlights the importance of rigorous testing: some behavioural interventions, even though they’re based on sound evidence from analogous areas of policy, have different impacts depending on the context. That’s why conducting robustly evaluated trials – with more than one treatment to test – is important for making better policies.

Harford also points at the multi-disciplinary nature of behavioural science. A large amount of the research done in the area comes from the field of psychology and disciplines such as anthropology, neuroscience and sociology provide valuable insights too. For this reason, we refer to our work as “behavioural science”, rather than “behavioural economics,” whose definition implies tighter parameters within which to work.

Harford goes on to note that academics have questioned what behavioural science is being used for. They worry political expediency is the main draw for politicians, allowing them to defer to behavioural interventions in contexts where more traditional, but more controversial, policies could be expected to have greater impact.

Looking beyond these debates, BIT welcomes that behavioural science is increasingly being recognised as having something substantial to contribute to policy development. And as Tim advises, we will continue to empirically investigate how the lessons from behavioural science can help us improve policy outcomes.