The Promise of the Life Sciences in Public Administration

iStock-492797381-handsJoseph Losco explores the impact of life science findings for generating a more accurate portrait of human action – and the consequences for public administration.

The Trump administration has proposed overturning an Obama-era regulation that encouraged states automatically to sign employees up for payroll deduction IRAs. The rule was promulgated by the Obama administration’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST), a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council representing more than a dozen governmental organizations, in order to encourage greater retirement savings. Prior to the rule, employees had to “opt-in” to such programs rather than opting out. The Social and Behavioral Sciences Team found in trials that reversing the procedure from opting “in” to opting “out” increased the number of employees participating in retirement plans.

The SBST, like its sister organization in the United Kingdom, the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), have been exploring policy changes meant to “nudge” individuals into making decisions that produce more beneficial results for both individuals and society. For example, a British trial in which the government texted tips to parents of preschoolers produced a significant increase in parental involvement and literacy.

SBST and BIT are evidence-based programs committed to testing the impact of small changes or “nudges” to individual behavior in order to improve economic and social policy. As discussed at length in several books by economist Richard Thaler and championed by policy insiders like Cass Sunstein such policies have emerged from a revolution in economic thinking called behavioural economics. Behavioural economists substitute empirical evidence about how people actually behave for theoretical hypothesizing about how rational actors should behave in a world with perfect information and driven by optimal efficiency.

Humans tend not to be very good at calculating odds

Life scientists and psychologists have long known that the rational actor model, while highlighting what may be the most economically efficient solutions to problems, does not reflect the way human actors process information. As demonstrated by social theorists like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, humans tend not to be very good at calculating odds in games of chance or devising strategies for beating the stock market. In recent years, economists have moved in greater numbers toward behavioural models.

Students of politics and the life sciences are well aware of the limits inherent in human reasoning. They know that our powers of cognition were born over millennia in environments very different from our own. For example, given scarcity and competition in evolutionary environments, individuals learned to become quite attuned to identifying members of their group who might cheat in accepting the benefits of group life without making necessary contributions. Evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have shown experimentally, for example, that individuals are more likely to make cognitive mistakes in the direction of cheat detection and punishment of cheaters even if this means accepting fewer benefits for themselves. We also know that humans rely on shortcuts or heuristics to aid in decision making in times of uncertainty and we tend to stick with these strategies even when they don’t work to our benefit. For example, we have a propensity to generalize on the basis of very small samples.

Life science findings undergird much of the recent literature in human decision making from behavioural economics to evolutionary psychology to neuropolitics. These finds are no longer confined to the domain of theory but are finding expression in public policy and form a new foundation for the study of public administration. My chapter in the Handbook of Biology and Politics provides more details about the root and promise of biological discovery for the study and craft of policymaking. We can only hope that policymakers don’t turn their backs on the progress that has been made.

Joseph Losco is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Ball State University.


Handbook of Biology and Politics edited by Steven A. Peterson and Albert Somit is out now.
Read Chapter 1 – What is Biopolitics? free on Elgaronline

Also on Elgarblog:
Why Does Biology Matter in Political Science?
Albert Somit presents the case for a “more biologically oriented” political science.

The Emergence of ‘Biopolicy’, Dr. Steven A. Peterson considers the impact of biological factors in  the formulation of policy.

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