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The role of behavioural science in public policy

Public policy assumes an important role in the functioning of any society. These policies are defined by the public sector to tackle some issues or problems and, even without noticing, they affect quite a few aspects of our daily lives. Nonetheless, some policies might not be the most effective ones or might be designed in a way that is not necessarily helping the citizens. Taking this into consideration, behavioural science can play a role in improving public policy’s outcomes in a cost-effective way allowing a lower degree of distortion in the economy.

How does behavioural science help?

As people do not always make rational decisions, governments can help their citizens by nudging them to make better decisions. Indeed, Behavioural Science can have an innovative role in public policy and amplify its effects. One of the strengths of nudging is that many approaches are relatively easy to study when it comes to evidence building. They usually do not imply high costs and often only require constructing a treatment and a control group.

Most of the public policy implemented through BS is concentrated on the take up of services however, in the future, it is expected that the insights will be applied to address broader problems. These interventions are usually applied to individuals (for example the graphic warnings on cigarette packs), but could also be designed to target a whole community. In addition, most of the policies that used behavioural science insights involve social services, applying the insights to other areas such as energy conservation, education and public health.

A default rule to save lives

Default rules are a great way to increase the effectiveness of public policy. One example that has already been implemented in some countries is the default rule for organ donation. This way, when people pass away it is assumed that they wanted their organs to be donated, except if they had previously stated otherwise, thus donating becomes the default. This policy is implemented to increase the organ donation rates, when facing an increasingly demand for transplants worldwide. The idea is to exploit the tendency for people to stick with the default rule, whether it is because people don’t explore the other options they might have or because they prefer if they don’t have to choose. By using the traditional opt-in system for organ donation it is more likely that someone who had the intention to donate does not do so as there is the need to register and to make a choice. Evidence from a study about organ donation in 48 countries, found that the ones that had an opt-out system presented a higher number of kidney and liver transplants. This policy is well spread in Europe, with Spain presenting the highest rates, as of 2014, with 36 donors per million.

Same food, healthier children

Providing healthy food in school canteens is very important to assure that children are eating healthy, however, it is often not enough. When presented with a healthy option and a fitter option it is likely that the children will choose the one that tastes better for them, and this is usually the less healthy one. However, just by changing the layout at which the food is displayed, children might be nudged to actually choose healthier food.

The idea is that the canteens can continue to serve the same foods as before, however, change the serving styles, create some attractive names for the healthier options and put products closer to the children’s eyes, for example displaying the fruit before the sweets, forcing everyone that wants a sweet to first look at the fruit. These small nudges are proven to be effective in schools and if being implemented consistently on large scale might be a great contributor in reducing obesity in children, an issue that has been increasing in developed countries.

Wrapping up

The behavioural science is already helping to implement more effective public policy, nonetheless there is still a long way to go and there is a lot that can be done to help the public sector. By using behavioural science insights policies are being implemented in a way that is both helpful for the government and for the citizens, as the policy might be cost-effective and have a good outcome for the government, and at the same time it is advantageous for citizens that maintain freedom of choice.

Catarina Chambino – Research Analyst


Mitra-Majumdar, Mayookha, Keith Fudge, and Justin Milner. 2018. Urban.Org. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/99161/using_behavioral_science_insights_to_inform_programs_and_policies.pdf.

Conci, Pilar. 2017. "Organ Donation: When Changing A Default Can Save Lives - Ideas Matter". Ideas Matter. https://blogs.iadb.org/ideas-matter/en/organ-donation-changing-default-can-save-lives/.

Ensaff, Hannah. 2017. Nutrition.Org.Uk. https://www.nutrition.org.uk/attachments/article/1062/10.%20Enstaff%20BNF%20270417%20(final).pdf.

R. Thapa, Janani, and Conrad P. Lyford. 2014. "Behavioral Economics In The School Lunchroom: Can It Affect Food Supplier Decisions? A Systematic Review". http://file:///Users/macuser/Downloads/_11_%20Lyford_20130067.pdf.

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