Head of White House “Nudge Unit” Maya Shankar Speaks about Newly Formed Social and Behavioral Sciences Team

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Last summer, the news broke that the White House was in the process of setting up its own “Nudge Unit,” modeled after the UK’s version, officially called the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT). Public reaction to the news was a mix between hopeful anticipation on the one hand and big-government alarmism on the other. Other than a profile of the unit’s leader, Maya Shankar—who completed a postdoctoral degree in Cognitive Neuroscience at Stanford, earned a PhD at Oxford, and whose official title is Senior Advisor for the Social and Behavioral Sciences White House Office of Science & Technology Policy—the stories carried little information about what the US version might look like. This trend continued over the past year, with little being said publicly about the US “Nudge Unit” and the policy issues it might choose to address.

However, more is now known about the new initiative. Shankar recently spoke via telepresence alongside David Halpern, leader of the UK’s BIT, at the Behavioral Exchange Conference in Sydney (BX2014), a conference designed to bring together thought leaders working at intersection of public policy, business, and behavioral science. While earlier this spring, Shankar was the keynote speaker at the United Nations Psychology Day, an event focused on how psychological science can inform global sustainable development.

In her brief speech at BX2014 (48:58-54:30), in the symposium “Nudging Government,” Shankar stated that the White House officially launched the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team in January 2014. Much of her remarks focused on the work that lead to the creation of the team, and logic behind why such a team is necessary.

“When I joined the office of Science and Technology Policy, in the spring of 2013, I came the with the goal to translate research insights from these fields into improvements in federal programs and policies, but I soon came to see the immense value of actually trying to institutionalize the continued translation of this research into policy improvements and policy design,”she said. “So I pitched the idea of creating a team of behavioral science and evaluation experts who could provide to agencies conceptual and technical support that would allow them to design and implement rapid, iterative trials that use behavioral insights.”

“I began my mission as a one woman band going from agency to agency telling them about the potential benefits of behavioral science, asking them what problems they were already trying to solve, and then empowering them with the low cost tools that could help them achieve these goals more effectively and efficiently,” she explained.

This work eventually lead to the January launch of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, in partnership with the Performance Improvement Council at the General Services Administration. The team has 6 members in addition to Shankar herself, and falls in line with President Obama’s continued push for evidence-based policy.

“Our hope is that in addition to demonstrating the impact of behavioral science in policy, we’ll also be able to improve the quality of evaluation that goes on in the federal government and to develop ongoing knowledge and an ongoing knowledge base of what works and what doesn’t,” Shankar said.

This past April at the UN’s Psychology Day, in her speech titled Designing Public Policies: A Person-Centered Approach (29:20-44:15; Q&A 54:20-56:05, 101:00-107:00), Shankar made similar points to those at BX2014. Though in addition to talking about the newly formed Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, her speech focused on educating the audience of government leaders, UN staff, and students about the potential for behavioral science to help solve global challenges related to health and sustainability.

With regard to the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, Shankar reiterated that the goal of the team is to “help Federal agencies identify low-cost behavioral science insights that improve outcomes and efficiency” (see slide), and named Veterans Affairs, Department of Education, Health and Human Services and USAID as collaborators.

In the education portion of her talk, Shankar presented the EAST framework — Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely — as a way to create effective, people-centered public policy. She highlighted research on water chlorination in Kenya, financial loan uptake in South Africa, energy usage in the UK, and medical text message reminders in Mozambique. (See slides below).

Shankar concluded her speech at the UN with the hope that identifying and employing behavioral insights will continue to be a collaborative process on a global scale. “It’s my hope that the global community can continue to collaborate and to share best practices and lessons learned,” she remarked. “The US Team benefitted tremendously from shared insights from the United Kingdom’s Behavioral Insights Team…and so hopefully we can continue this global dialogue in an effort to accelerate the effective application of these insights.”

Recently, a fellowship opportunity with the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team was announced for qualified behavioral scientists who want to help apply behavioral insights in the policy realm.

Within the US, multiple non-governmental efforts are springing up with the similar mission to bring behavioral science into public policy, including the creation of Stanford’s SPARQ initiative (Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions) and the new Behavioral Science and Policy Journal set to launch this fall.

With the official Social and Behavioral Sciences Team barely 7 months old, it is too soon to evaluate successes or failures, but if the US initiative follows a similar path to that of the UK’s BIT, one might predict initial public skepticism to give way to respect for the work. Ultimately, as David Halpern relayed in an interview with The Psych Report earlier this year, the key for the US may be to build policies that people both care about as well as trust:

“This is an agenda that rests on what the public thinks of us; giving us permission to find more effective ways of helping people quit smoking, or making sure consumer markets are working well, or making sure that everybody pays their fair share of taxes, or whatever it will be. The legitimacy of what we do and when we do trials, it’s not just does it work by the sheer numbers, but also how the public feel about it.”

Corrections, 8/25/14: The name of the newly formed behavioral science unit was originally reported as the US Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, but it is now officially the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. Maya Shankar’s title was originally reported as Deputy Director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, but her title is actually Senior Advisor for the Social and Behavioral Sciences White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. The above article now reflects these changes.