In a New Yorker article a few years ago, physician/author Atul Gawande described several programs in inner city clinics that dramatically reduced hospital admissions and improved patient health by employing life coaches who got to know patients and found ways to nudge their lifestyles in a healthier direction.
RESPONDING TO CLIMATE CHANGE
Traditional economic incentives like investment tax credits, energy taxes, and pollution credits might help us reduce our environmental footprint, but focusing exclusively on these neglects the extraordinary opportunity to call on citizens to do the right thing because it's the right thing. Indeed, there is even evidence that incentives can undermine people's desire to do the right thing. In a Swiss study of citizen willingness to have a nuclear waste dump located in their communities, researchers found that whereas 50 percent of citizens agreed (reluctantly) when no incentives were involved, only 25 percent agreed when substantial incentives were involved.
Each of us can take responsibility as citizens to contribute in small ways to solving the big environmental problems we face. As some citizens take responsibility, it makes others more likely to join in. Eventually a new social norm is created. And social norms can be more powerful than tax credits and penalties. Psychologist Robert Cialdani has provided several lovely demonstrations of techniques that encourage citizens to step up. A Council of Psychological Advisers can help in crafting appeals to citizens to do their duty.
LOOKING BEYOND GDP
Finally, let us ask the most fundamental question: What is public policy for? We aim to increase collective welfare, but just what does welfare consist of? For the most part, under the sway of economic thinking, our aim has been to make the country more prosperous -- to increase per-capita GDP. The appeal of this goal is twofold. First, we assume that if people are richer, they will be freer as individuals to choose the objects and activities that serve their welfare. We (the state and its technocrats) don't have to choose for them. So wealth serves as a proxy for everything else. And second, GDP can be measured. But it doesn't help much to pursue what you can measure if what you're measuring is the wrong thing. It doesn't help to get better at achieving goals if you're achieving the wrong goals. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said as much in a speech at a conference of economic researchers in Cambridge, Mass., on Aug. 6: "The ultimate purpose of economics, of course, is to understand and promote the enhancement of well-being. Economic measurement accordingly must encompass measures of well-being and its determinants."
Much research in the psychology of well-being suggests that some wealth-enhancing policies improve welfare, but others do not. Indeed, some of what it takes to get more prosperous may be counterproductive when it comes to well-being. A Council of Psychological Advisers can help here too, in the design of a system of national "psychological accounts" that does a better job of measuring well-being than per-capita GDP ever could.
I wish I could say that the U.S. would be leading the way if a Council of Psychological Advisers were created, but in fact, it would be following an enlightened trail already being blazed by others. The multinational Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been measuring quality of life for several years now. The French government, under former President Nicholas Sarkozy, issued a 300-page report three years ago on the limits of GDP as a measure of social welfare along with suggestions for how welfare measures can be improved. And in Great Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has established a Behavioural Insights Team charged with formulating policy recommendations, based largely on psychological research, to help people make wiser decisions and live happier, healthier, more productive lives. And even these nations have been somewhat late to the game. Bhutan has been focused on measuring "gross national happiness" for 40 years, and has often chosen policies that promote well-being in preference to policies that would enhance GDP.
Many of us were cheered when President Obama was elected in 2008 that the Obama administration seemed marked by a renewed respect for knowledge and expertise. Whatever the politics of various policies might be, details of implementation were left not to political cronies, or to ideologues, but to people who actually have respect for evidence. I hope this respect for evidence and expertise will continue. But it needs to be the right evidence and expertise. A Council of Psychological Advisers is long overdue. This would be an excellent time to create one.