Nudge Turns 10: A Special Issue on Behavioral Science in Public Policy

Our second special issue originates in the “deviant” thoughts of an economics graduate student. As this self-described lazy, unimpressive student worked on his thesis in the early 1970s, he began to discover the myriad ways that human behavior was inconsistent with economic theory. Broadcasting these ideas, he knew, could amount to academic treason. And yet, he couldn’t shake the idea that the disconnection between theory and behavior was critical.

In the middle of this intellectual turmoil, he found an academic paper that caused his heart to beat “the way it might during the final minutes of a close game. The paper took me 30 minutes to read from start to finish, but my life had changed forever.”

And soon, our lives would change, too. The student, of course, was Richard Thaler, Nobel prize winner and Behavioral Scientist Advisory Board member, and after he read “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, he began to generate the ideas and theories that eventually started an international movement to integrate behavioral science into government policy and practice.

It’s been 10 years since Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published Nudge, the right time, we think, for a look back at how far we’ve come and where we could go.

In 2008, Thaler, along with Cass Sunstein, published the book Nudge, detailing how policymakers could redesign policies to “nudge” citizens toward better behavior and choices. In its wake flowered the world of nudge units, marrying the science of choice architecture with public policy. Since 2008, these units, and researchers and policymakers with an eye for applying behavioral science in government, have influenced everything from tax policy to retirement savings, from energy consumption to environmental responsibility.

It’s been 10 years since Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published Nudge, the right time, we think, for a look back at how far we’ve come and where we could go. Over the next three weeks, we’ll publish a series of pieces that examines how behavioral science has informed and influenced the world of public policy, as well as what science has learned from the world of policy.

Some of these pieces weigh the successes and shortcomings of how nudges, and behavioral science more generally, have been implemented around the world. Others assess the relationship, sometimes positive and sometimes tense, between academia and applied work. Still others reflect on the field’s methods and offer suggestions for improved practices. All help us think about how behavioral science might help improve our future in the decades to come.

Week 1

When Everything Looks Like a Nail: Building Better “Behavioral Economics” Teams
By Jason Collins

Nudges Alone Won’t Save Nemo: Conservation in the Great Barrier Reef
By John Pickering

From Ph.D. to Policy: Facilitating Connections Between Junior Scholars and Policymakers
By Ashley Whillans and Heather Devine

Shouldn’t We Make It Easy to Use Behavioral Science for Good?
By Manasee Desai

RCTs Are Not (Always) the Answer
By Tania Ramos and João Matos

Week 2

Why Governments Need to Nudge Themselves
By Michael Hallsworth and Mark Egan

Behavioral Development Economics
By Syon Bhanot and Aishwarya Deshpande

Why Governments Should Treat Cybersecurity the Way They Do Infectious Diseases
By Karen Renaud and Stephen Flowerday

Pour One Out for Nudge’s Forgotten Peers
By Jesse Dashefsky

Helping Parents Follow Through
By Nadav Klein, Keri Lintz, Ariel Kalil, and Susan E. Mayer

Week 3

A New Model for Integrating Behavioral Science and Design
By Sarah Reid and Ruth Schmidt

Applying Behavioral Science Upstream in the Policy Design Process
By Kate Phillips

Lessons in “Nudging” From the Developing World
By Abigail Goodnow Dalton

Choice Architecture 2.0: How People Interpret and Make Sense of Nudges
By Job Krijnen

What the Origins of the “1 in 5” Statistic Teaches Us About Sexual Assault Policy
By Alexandra Rutherford


Nudge Turns 10: A Q&A With Cass Sunstein
By Elizabeth Weingarten

Nudge Turns 10: A Q&A With Ricard Thaler
By Evan Nesterak