In 2022, Nick Chater and George Loewenstein published a pre-print called ‘The i-frame and the s-frame: How focusing on individual-level solutions has led behavioral public policy astray’. The paper argues that “behavioral scientists” have focused too much on policy ideas that aim to shape individual behavior (the “i-frame”), rather than the systems in which people behave (the “s-frame”) and therefore they “may have unwittingly promoted the interests of the opponents of systemic change”. I greatly respect the authors of this article and agree with their ultimate goal of applying behavioral science to public policy more effectively. However, I find this paper to be deeply flawed and ultimately self-defeating. My concerns come in three categories.
First, empirical concerns. The paper gives an inaccurate portrayal of the practice of behavioral public policy. Selective quotations give the impression that practitioners are not involved in developing and promoting systemic solutions, while evidence to the contrary is omitted. The paper would have benefited from greater engagement with existing studies of what “nudge units” and other practitioners actually do, as well as the general public administration literature on the realities of the policy making process. The paper asserts that offering “i-frame” policies reduces support for “s-frame” policies, but can supply only speculation and limited direct evidence to back up this claim.
Second, theoretical concerns. The “i-frame” / “s-frame” distinction is both incoherent and unhelpful for categorizing policies. Moreover, insisting on this distinction obscures some of the most promising future directions for behavioral public policy, which are based on obtaining a better understanding of the interplay between individual and systemic factors (in particular, by drawing on theories of complex adaptive systems).
Third, pragmatic concerns. The content and presentation of the paper undermine its stated goals and produce outcomes it claims it does not want. For example, the paper’s criticisms have been used to dismiss the whole enterprise of behavioral public policy, rather than advocating for a different direction for the field.