Two months ago President Obama signed an executive order to encourage the use of evidence-based research in government policy. He also established a permanent Social and Behavioral Sciences Team to inject behavioral insights into a number of government programs. Or as they put it, “to design human-centered federal programs.”

This is a big step for the social sciences and for public policy. For forever and a day, government programs, private sector products, and everything in between were designed based on a mix of theory, market research, hope, and a couple of honey-dipped anecdotes tossed in by avuncular policy makers. What the behavioral sciences add is designing government policies around how people actually behave. Specifically, how their cognitive biases, emotional make-up, etc. make them act different than a green-blooded Vulcan or your Aunt Tilly.

Behavioral research, driven largely by psychology, has shown that decision-making can be influenced not just by the information itself, but how the information is presented and how it is treated by cognitive biases that we all have. Okay, that was a big, long sentence. I’ll keep it shorter. Check out the book Nudge if you want the full brain download. Bottom-line: there’s low-cost approaches to spur large behavioral changes by using the equivalent of policy wonk Jedi mind tricks. As for what the President is doing, check out the inspiration for it in this book by the head of the Behavioral Insights Team in the UK. The BIT has been work for UK Prime Minister David Cameron for a while.

Are you creeped out by all of this? You, in the back, slouching in your chair, you look like you have a case of the willies. The government messing with your mind sounds like tinfoil hat territory, I know. But it’s just a tool, similar to marketing or political advertising, that smacks your human impulses and triggers in just such a way (kind of like cat videos). And if it’s deployed to help you make better decisions then that’s all to the good. Because any information provision already does this, and the more unintentional, the more disastrous for you and everyone else.

This all interests me not just because of my day job, but because of the sci-fi implications <rubs hands in glee>. We’re just scratching on the cave wall when it comes to developing effective tools to mitigate or enhance cognitive biases. We’ll get better at using these tools and eventually what we’ll be able to do may approximate magic.

Imagine:

  • An AI that knows your cognitive biases and keeps you from making mistakes (as well as possibly helping you to learn)
  • A ruthless person who knows an advanced level of mind tricks and can exploit them.
  • Guardrails for governments to avoid decisions that are either rash, misinformed, driven by misperceptions, or the result of cognitive biases
Policy wonk Jedi mind tricks