Friday, June 05, 2009

Seed - The New Interface of Governance

Interesting article - I'd like to think that politics can actually make use of what psychology has to offer in the realm of decision making and choices - but I doubt it.

The New Interface of Governance

Frontier / by Nancy Scola / June 2, 2009

If we can just tweak the way we make choices, we can make smarter ones. A look at Obama’s plans to put the science of human nature to work.

Illustration: Mike Pick, adapted from photograph by Sir Mervs

For those of us familiar with the strange land that is Washington, DC, it’s tempting to snicker a bit at the sudden star turn of the field of behavioral economics in our nation’s capital. Books like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s Nudge, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and George Akerlof and Robert Shiller’s Animal Spirits are being passed around like samizdat. Human beings, the thinking goes, bear little more than a passing resemblance to the “economic man” of classic econ textbooks. We’re messy creatures, not altogether skilled at maximizing value, or efficiency, or all those other things our self-interest is supposed to drive us to attain.

“People make bad choices,” says Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. “Or they make no choices at all unless you hold a gun to their heads.” Look no further than the mortgage mess. For all the malevolence on the part of mortgage lenders, many of us simply took on loans we couldn’t possibly carry long term. Moreover, we regularly do things like leave money on the table, letting our confusion over retirement plans scare us away from employers matching funds. The dream of Nudge-ers, as the shorthand goes, is that if the Obama Administration can just tweak the way that we make choices, even just slightly, we might make smarter ones.

Sure, we scoff. That stuff might win you Nobel Prizes (Note Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman, 2002). But, we think, Washington and the convoluted political process therein is where grand intellectual visions go to die.

There’s a chance, though, that the web-savvy Obama Administration might have an opening through which to put its behaviorist vision into practice. Behavioral economists use the term “choice architecture” to frame how decision makers can gently scoot people towards better choices. Internet experts talk about “information architecture” or “interaction design.” But they share much in common—particularly, the understanding that today’s information-rich world is confusing, and that attention dedicated to crafting the environment in which people make choices gives us, as Schwartz puts it, “a fighting chance of knowing what we’re doing.”

“When you’re doing interaction design,” explains Christian Crumlish, curator of Yahoo’s Pattern Design Library, “you often start by studying people’s behavior in the wild, because you want to map and facilitate what they already do.” Take’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” feature. Search for Herbert Marcuse and Amazon suggests that perhaps you might also be interested in something by Hannah Arendt. The site’s architecture is mimicking the experience you might get by walking through your neighborhood bookshop’s philosophy aisle.

Though other times, says Crumlish, the intent behind interaction design is to guide new behaviors. If you’re launching a new social network, for example, your goal is to shape an environment that encourages users to share as much as possible. “There are,” says Crumlish, “all sorts of tricks to do that.”

Facebook, for example, sets defaults that encourage their users to reveal as much as possible about their lives—details that other humans find irresistible. (Some moves, like Facebook’s News Feed, at first violated users sense of privacy. But tellingly, it was users’ comfort level that adjusted, not company policy.) What’s striking is how well those web design tricks find their match in behavioral economics’ literature. Sunstein and Thaler, for instance, prescribe defaults to solve the problem of uneconomic humans who simply fail to pick a 401(k) plan: make enrollment in a plan the default option. Most people will stick with the status quo. Others will work up enough energy to change it. All will be better off than if they were enrolled in no plan at all.

If you’re US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and you really want Americans to renegotiate the terms of their mortgage—a major feature of the Obama Administration’s plan to ease pain for homeowners—the web can be an ally. The Treasury Department boiled the complex economic plan down into the bare bones site The interface is built like a cattle chute, shunting mortgage holders into the program most appropriate for them. It’s perhaps not the most nuanced of tools, but it’s better than letting Americans flounder under stifling mortgages. There’s a corollary from Obama himself: As a candidate, Obama distributed a drop-dead simple web widget that calculated an individual’s tax burdens under his economic plan. “Too crude!” his critics cried. The campaign said nothing, while millions of Americans got the idea that—contrary to what McCain kept arguing—what they owed the IRS might just be a little lighter under President Obama.

Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab makes academic study of these computer tricks and of the technological engineering that shape human behaviors. One example they cite is the popular sale site, Every day a new item is featured on the homepage, like a digital watch that sets itself according to atomic time at a price of $19.99—good for one day only. Mere mortals are powerless to resist the call of a limited-time deal. Studies show, writes Sunstein and Thaler, “losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same thing makes you happy.” And so, we buy. Of course, bricks-and-mortar retail stores take advantage of the one-day sale, but the web is different. Running to Best Buy for the latest deal raises questions in our minds like, “What if the parking lot is so crowded that I can’t get a space?” With, it’s one or two-click satisfaction. Even more powerful, though, is the web’s built-in transparency. Commenters on that Global Atomic Watch one-day sale, for example, helpfully point out that the cheapest online price for this timepiece is $39.95. Sold.

The transparent nature of the digital world has potentially powerful public policy implications. Obama, for example, is pushing in Congress for greater credit card transparency, and Sunstein and Thaler see a day when our own personal MasterCard and Visa records get uploaded to a site that spits out a determination of whether our APRs, payment terms, and frequent-flier miles are a good match for our individual economic needs. The hope is that that direct, individualized feedback can prompt people to use their resources more wisely; that’s also the thinking behind Google’s PowerMeter project, which aims to display your home energy usage rate right on your Google home page. Another example: The state of California runs an online greenhouse gas registry that makes public just how much CO2 local businesses emit. The Environmental Protection Agency is planning on launching a nationwide version of the program. The agency’s proposal, while still in its rough-draft stages, doesn’t yet spell out the registry’s online component.

To understand how the online component of the EPA’s greenhouse gas registry will evolve, it’s necessary to take a brief tour through the Federal regulatory process and just how President Obama plans to overhaul it. Already in this young administration, using the web to add a dose of “public” to public policy has become standard operating procedure. Witness,,, to name just a few of the executive branch sites that have blossomed in Obama’s Washington. There are signs that the White House is planning to take this approach further, imprinting the way it does business on the rest of the sprawling executive branch.

There exists in the Federal Government a little-known office called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. OIRA’s job is to make sure that as Federal agencies regulate their actions carry, as Congress has phrased it, “The President’s voice.” In a barely-noticed directive issued just after taking office, President Obama called for a rethinking of OIRA and the regulatory process to in part, “Clarify the role of behavioral science in formulating regulatory policies.” For the position of OIRA’s director, the president appointed Nudge’s Cass Sunstein himself—a strong sign that the Obama White House is eager to examine how “choice architecture” and gentle nudging could help Federal agencies and departments tackle their regulatory challenges. When the EPA’s greenhouse gas registry eventually rolls out, there’s a good chance that it will go beyond a simple website to be a carefully-crafted framework to use what we know about human nature to rein in greenhouse gases.

There’s no doubt a tendency to recoil a bit at the idea of the Federal Government shaping behavior through a pre-checked checkbox and a tempting user interface. It’s not pure paranoia. Says Yahoo’s Crumlish, “People coming to use an interface have an interest, but the ‘house’ has an interest as well.” Is the fact that “house” also happens to be the executive branch of the US Federal Government enough to provoke fears of Big Brother, and thus resistance to whatever the White House’s latest web project might be?
Not necessarily. “Get over the idea that you’re not pushing people one way or another,” Schwartz says he regularly tells decision makers.

If the general public understood that choice shaping is ubiquitous, Schwartz believes, they might get over their initial wariness at being nudged. Behaviorists like to use the example of the school cafeteria. Nudge-ers might recommend that fruit choices be placed before cookies and cakes on the dessert table. It’s not, they argue, like there’s a pre-ordained natural order according to which food choices should be placed before children. Throwing all the food up in the air to see where it lands isn’t a very sensible approach, so decisions have to be made. If everyone who designs anything—whether it’s a lunchroom or a new government home page—is architecting choice, the argument goes, that power might as well be used to advance rational, efficient, economic public policy.

Still, the behaviorists in President Obama’s inner circle likely anticipate a good amount of skepticism from the public. One recently launched executive branch project might be read as an attempt to allay some of those fears. exposes some of the dry details of Federal Government operations and the information it regularly collects. By making it easier for the public to find, download, and make use of government data sets, aims to “make government more transparent,” and create “an unprecedented level of openness.”

Of course, it’s a fair question whether one-click access to US Geological Survey spreadsheets showing the “locations and characteristics of world copper smelters” really amounts to pulling back the curtain on Big Brother. There’s a risk of going down a rabbit hole, trying to make sense of whether government transparency is a counterbalance to being nudged—or if it is itself “choice architecture.” In the end, whether the new politics of choice succeeds in bettering our lives may depend on letting go of the idea that we always have to be fully in-control of our choices. Perhaps the coming age of smarter, more efficient public policy has to start with personal admissions that as flesh-and-blood human beings, we’re not always smart, and we’re very often inefficient.

We live in a world awash with knowledge. “The challenge we have now is to shape how we navigate that information in meaningful ways,” says Swarthmore’s Schwartz. “The people who truly figure that out,” he predicts,” are going to be the ones to run the world.” Perhaps they already are.

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