How the Obama Administration Motivates Behaviors

The Time Magazine article was extremely instructive in helping us to understand the behavioral science oriented steps being taken by the Obama administration. In this post we’ll focus on a number of them. Specifically, they are:

  1. Supplying knowledge
  2. Making it easy
  3. Creating social norms
  4. Legislating the activity

According to the Time Magazine article, studies suggest that better information can help us make better choices. This information can be disseminated in the forms of public service announcements (PSA’s) or appeals from well respected figures (remember our discussion about the use of Hubs in building communities) and even serial dramas.

What this means is that aggressive rules for disclosure and clarity will likely result in people making more informed and better choices. Documenting best practices will also produce meaningful results.

The second way to influence behavior is to make it easy for those who wish to make the choice that you wish them to make. This is why default options – opt-out instead of opt-in – are very successful. The push to create an electronic health record (EHR) is one step along the path of making generic drugs our default prescription of choice.

The creation of social norms is yet another way to influence what we choose. An appeal to conformity is very effective as we are a herdlike species. If our peers are obese, we are more comfortable choosing to be that way. What works is creating a sense that choosing not to participate in an effort sets us apart from social norms and therefore, we will take steps to be in sync with our peers. This is a technique that has been used successfully even in forwarding goals that are inappropriate or morally wrong (think McCarthyism).

The last factor that the Time Magazine article addresses is what happens when a nudge is insufficient. At that point, a strategy of making something mandatory is very useful. That’s why there is interest in taxing undesirable behaviors such as cigarettes, alcohol and even trans-fats consumption and subsidizing desirable behaviors such as weatherizing a home or the purchase of fuel efficient cars.

Now, when we hear a new initiative being proposed by the Obama Administration, our awareness to the work of the behavioral scientists will be present. Let’s hope that these efforts though are used to move us in the right directions.

In the ensuing posts, we’ll look at like some of the other models and variants that allow us to influence others.

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