Part of the core mission of the Behavioral Science and Policy Association is to bridge the divide between behavioral scientists, policy makers, practitioners, and the public. That mission is nicely embodied in the person of David Brooks, Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, and author, most recently, of The Road to Character. Brooks is a well-informed consumer of behavioral science and actively shares his discoveries with a broad range of audiences, including in columns such as “In Praise of Small Miracles” and “The Unexamined Society.”

So that promising ideas and initiatives don’t get unnecessarily bogged down in partisanship, it is particularly valuable to get a fresh perspective on how to make behaviorally informed policy successful in the political realm from such a highly regarded political commentator.

Brooks was recently kind enough to speak to policyshop about some of these issues:

#policyshop:

Why did you choose to join the BSPA board?

David Brooks:

There were three main reasons. First, like everyone, I assume, I’m interested in the hidden patterns and drivers of human behavior. Second, as a journalist, I’m always curious to learn more about findings in new areas that are interesting, and sharing them. Then third, I had been frustrated that the standard economic model wasn’t explaining human behavior well – then along come Kahneman and Sunstein and Thaler and others, who helped to fill in those blanks.

#policyshop:

Is there any new research that you’re particularly interested in or excited about?

DB:

Recently I’ve been interested in learning about the science behind mating, romance, and marriage as well as child rearing. I’m curious whether it’s possible to understand these sorts of things using an algorithm, like sites like match.com try to do. I recently had dinner with Eli Finkel who has done research in that area.

#policyshop:

One of the blog’s goals is to highlight the work of young scholars making an impact in the field – is there anyone who stands out to you in that regard?

DB:

I often find the work of Francesca Gino, who’s at the business school at Harvard, particularly interesting.

#policyshop:

At the BSPA meeting [that took place this June in New York] you said that the behavioral science approach is not about making policy, but executing it better. Could you expand a little more on that?

DB:

Sometimes there’s a concern that the government may be using these behavioral science tools to program the way people behave. The first thing to understand is that these tools are powerful, but they’re not that powerful. Actually changing behavior is really hard. Manipulating people, the way people once imagined that you could with subliminal advertising, is not really possible.

But ultimately the goal is not necessarily even to create new policy, but to make existing policy work better by using our understanding of real human behavior and testing what works.

#policyshop:

Can you speak to the potential conflict between a conservative philosophy [in the Burkean sense that society should evolve organically] and the possibility of interventionism on the part of scientists who think they know better?

DB:

One of my favorite essays on this topic is by Michael Oakeshott who warned about the problems of “technocracy”. He distinguished between practical knowledge and technical knowledge, where practical knowledge is what you learn by doing, and technical knowledge is what you could codify, like in a recipe or a manual. Communism, I think, is an example of technocracy.

The goals of behavioral science are not about organizing society along technocratic lines. It’s about introducing small interventions and alterations within a complex organic structure. As Cass Sunstein writes, we’re nudged one way or another all the time. So, unlike Communism, which you can think of as building a jungle, the behavioral science approach is about shoring up the banks of a river that’s running through the jungle.

Communism also tried to create human nature anew; behavioral science does the opposite, trying to design policies that take into account our best understanding of human nature and the constraints it imposes.

#policyshop:

How do you see the path to making behavioral science informed policy a bipartisan value?

DB:

First of all, pitch policy goals that conservatives like. Everyone’s a hypocrite on policy matters, so pitch something they support. There are a lot of policies that everyone supports, but conservatives emphasize, those would be a good starting point.

dave-nussbaumDave Nussbaum is the Director of Communications for BSPA and the editor of the #policyshop blog. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of Behavioral Science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. You can follow him on twitter @davenuss79, or contact him by email at davenussbaum@behavioralpolicy.org. His website is at www.davenussbaum.com.