Friday, November 18, 2022

How focusing on individual-level solutions has led behavioral public policy astray

MindBlog has been staying out of politics lately, but I think it worthwhile to pass on the abstract of a forthcoming article in Behavioral and Brain Science by Chater and Loewenstein, who argue that focusing on individual rather than systemic causes of social problems has yielded disappointing results, and promotes the interests of corporate opponents of systemic change. (Motivated readers can obtain the full text by emailing me.)
An influential line of thinking in behavioral science, to which the two authors have long subscribed, is that many of society’s most pressing problems can be addressed cheaply and effectively at the level of the individual, without modifying the system in which the individual operates. We now believe this was a mistake, along with, we suspect, many colleagues in both the academic and policy communities. Results from such interventions have been disappointingly modest. But more importantly, they have guided many (though by no means all) behavioral scientists to frame policy problems in individual, not systemic, terms: to adopt what we call the “i-frame,” rather than the “s-frame.” The difference may be more consequential than i-frame advocates have realized, by deflecting attention and support away from s-frame policies. Indeed, highlighting the i-frame is a long-established objective of corporate opponents of concerted systemic action such as regulation and taxation. We illustrate our argument briefly for six policy problems, and in depth with the examples of climate change, obesity, retirement savings, and pollution from plastic waste. We argue that the most important way in which behavioral scientists can contributed to public policy is by employing their skills to develop and implement value- creating system-level change.

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