The News: A User’s Manual


New book by Alain De Botton: “The news is everywhere, we can’t stop checking it constantly on our screens, but what is it doing to our minds?

the-news
The news occupies the same dominant position in modern society as religion once did, asserts Alain de Botton – but we don’t begin to understand its impact on us. In this dazzling new book, de Botton takes 25 archetypal news stories – from an aircrash to a murder, a celebrity interview to a political scandal – and submits them to unusually intense analysis.

He raises questions like: How come disaster stories are often so uplifting? What makes the love lives of celebrities so interesting? Why do we enjoy politicians being brought down? Why are upheavals in far off lands often so… boring?

De Botton has written the ultimate manual for our news-addicted age, one sure to bring calm, understanding and a measure of sanity to our daily (perhaps even hourly) interactions with the news machine.

Inspired by writing the book, he has also created a news outlet, which can be visited here: www.philosophersmail.com.

Index: Designing for Behavior Change


The Living Library Index – inspired by the Harper’s Index – provides important statistics and highlights global trends in governance innovation. This installment focuses on designing for behavior change and was originally published in 2014.

  • Year the Behavioural Insights or “Nudge” Team was established by David Cameron in the U.K.: 2010
  • Amount saved by the U.K. Courts Service a year by sending people owing fines personalized text messages to persuade them to pay promptly since the creation of the Nudge unit: £30m
    • Entire budget for the Behavioural Insights Team: less than £1 million
    • Estimated reduction in bailiff interventions through the use of personalized text reminders: 150,000 fewer interventions annually
  • Percentage increase among British residents who paid their taxes on time when they received a letter saying that most citizens in their neighborhood pay their taxes on time: 15%
  • Estimated increase in organ-donor registrations in the U.K. if people are asked “If you needed an organ transplant, would you take one?”: 96,000
  • Proportion of employees who now have a workplace pension since the U.K. government switched from opt-in to opt-out (illustrating the power of defaults): 83%, 63% before opt-out
  • Increase in 401(k) enrollment rates within the U.S. by changing the default from ‘opt in’ to ‘opt out’: from 13% to 80%
  • Behavioral studies have shown that consumers overestimate savings from credit cards with no annual fees. Reduction in overall borrowing costs to consumers by requiring card issuers to tell consumers how much it would cost them in fees and interest, under the 2009 CARD Act in the U.S.: 1.7% of average daily balances 
  • Many high school students and their families in the U.S. find financial aid forms for college complex and thus delay filling them out. Increase in college enrollment as a result of being helped to complete the FAFSA financial aid form by an H&R tax professional, who then provided immediate estimates of the amount of aid the student was eligible for, and the net tuition cost of four nearby public colleges: 26%
  • How much more likely people are to keep accounting records, calculate monthly revenues, and separate their home and business books if given “rules of thumb”-based training with regards to managing their finances, according to a randomized control trial conducted in a bank in the Dominican Republic: 10%
  • Elderly Americans are asked to choose from over 40 options when enrolling in Medicaid Part D private drug plans. How many switched plans to save money when they received a letter providing information about three plans that would be cheaper for them: almost double 
    • The amount saved on average per person by switching plans due to this intervention: $150 per year
  • Increase in prescriptions to manage cardiac disease when Medicaid enrollees are sent a suite of behavioral nudges such as more salient description of the consequences of remaining untreated and post-it note reminders during an experiment in the U.S.: 78%
  • Reduction in street-litter when a trail of green footprints leading to nearby garbage cans is stenciled on the ground during an experiment in Copenhagen, Denmark: 46%
  • Reduction in missed National Health Service appointments in the U.K. when patients are asked to fill out their own appointment cards: 18%
    • Reduction in missed appointments when patients are also made aware of the number of people who attend their appointments on time: 31%
    • The cost of non-attendance per year for the National Health Service: £700m 
  • How many people in a U.S. experiment chose to ‘downsize’ their meals when asked, regardless of whether they received a discount for the smaller portion: 14-33%
    • Average reduction in calories as a result of downsizing: 200
  • Number of households in the U.K. without properly insulated attics, leading to high energy consumption and bills: 40%
    • Result of offering group discounts to motivate households to insulate their attics: no effect
    • Increase in households that agreed to insulate their attics when offered loft-clearing services even though they had to pay for the service: 4.8 fold increase

Sources

Selected Readings on Behavioral Economics: Nudges


The Living Library’s Selected Readings series seeks to build a knowledge base on innovative approaches for improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of governance. This curated and annotated collection of recommended works on the topic of behavioral economics was originally published in 2014.

The 2008 publication of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge ushered in a new era of behavioral economics, and since then, policy makers in the United States and elsewhere have been applying behavioral economics to the field of public policy. Like Smart Disclosure, behavioral economics can be used in the public sector to improve the decisionmaking ability of citizens without relying on regulatory interventions. In the six years since Nudge was published, the United Kingdom has created the Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the Nudge Unit), a cross-ministerial organization that uses behavioral economics to inform public policy, and the White House has recently followed suit by convening a team of behavioral economists to create a behavioral insights-driven team in the United States. Policymakers have been using behavioral insights to design more effective interventions in the fields of long term unemployment; roadway safety; enrollment in retirement plans; and increasing enrollment in organ donation registries, to name some noteworthy examples. The literature of this nascent field provides a look at the growing optimism in the potential of applying behavioral insights in the public sector to improve people’s lives.

Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

  • John Beshears, James Choi, David Laibson and Brigitte C. Madrian – The Importance of Default Options for Retirement Savings Outcomes: Evidence from the United States – a paper examining the role default options play in encouraging intelligent retirement savings decisionmaking.
  • Cabinet Office and Behavioural Insights Team, United Kingdom – Applying Behavioural Insights to Healtha paper outlining some examples of behavioral economics being applied to the healthcare landscape using cost-efficient interventions.
  • Matthew Darling, Saugato Datta and Sendhil Mullainathan – The Nature of the BEast: What Behavioral Economics Is Not – a paper discussing why control and behavioral economics are not as closely aligned as some think, reiterating the fact that the field is politically agnostic.
  • Antoinette Schoar and Saugato Datta – The Power of Heuristics – a paper exploring the concept of “heuristics,” or rules of thumb, which can provide helpful guidelines for pushing people toward making “reasonably good” decisions without a full understanding of the complexity of a situation.
  • Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein – Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness – an influential book describing the many ways in which the principles of behavioral economics can be and have been used to influence choices and behavior through the development of new “choice architectures.” 
  • U.K. Parliament Science and Technology Committee – Behaviour Changean exploration of the government’s attempts to influence the behaviour of its citizens through nudges, with a focus on comparing the effectiveness of nudges to that of regulatory interventions.

Annotated Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Beshears, John, James Choi, David Laibson and Brigitte C. Madrian. “The Importance of Default Options for Retirement Savings Outcomes: Evidence from the United States.” In Jeffrey R. Brown, Jeffrey B. Liebman and David A. Wise, editors, Social Security Policy in a Changing Environment, Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2009. http://bit.ly/LFmC5s.

  • This paper examines the role default options play in pushing people toward making intelligent decisions regarding long-term savings and retirement planning.
  • Importantly, the authors provide evidence that a strategically oriented default setting from the outset is likely not enough to fully nudge people toward the best possible decisions in retirement savings. They find that the default settings in every major dimension of the savings process (from deciding whether to participate in a 401(k) to how to withdraw money at retirement) have real and distinct effects on behavior.

Cabinet Office and Behavioural Insights Team, United Kingdom. “Applying Behavioural Insights to Health.” December 2010. http://bit.ly/1eFP16J.

  • In this report, the United Kingdom’s Behavioural Insights Team does not attempt to “suggest that behaviour change techniques are the silver bullet that can solve every problem.” Rather, they explore a variety of examples where local authorities, charities, government and the private-sector are using behavioural interventions to encourage healthier behaviors.  
  • The report features case studies regarding behavioral insights ability to affect the following public health issues:
    • Smoking
    • Organ donation
    • Teenage pregnancy
    • Alcohol
    • Diet and weight
    • Diabetes
    • Food hygiene
    • Physical activity
    • Social care
  • The report concludes with a call for more experimentation and knowledge gathering to determine when, where and how behavioural interventions can be most effective in helping the public become healthier.

Darling, Matthew, Saugato Datta and Sendhil Mullainathan. “The Nature of the BEast: What Behavioral Economics Is Not.” The Center for Global Development. October 2013. https://bit.ly/2QytRmf.

  • In this paper, Darling, Datta and Mullainathan outline the three most pervasive myths that abound within the literature about behavioral economics:
    • First, they dispel the relationship between control and behavioral economics.  Although tools used within behavioral economics can convince people to make certain choices, the goal is to nudge people to make the choices they want to make. For example, studies find that when retirement savings plans change the default to opt-in rather than opt-out, more workers set up 401K plans. This is an example of a nudge that guides people to make a choice that they already intend to make.
    • Second, they reiterate that the field is politically agnostic. Both liberals and conservatives have adopted behavioral economics and its approach is neither liberal nor conservative. President Obama embraces behavioral economics but the United Kingdom’s conservative party does, too.
    • And thirdly, the article highlights that irrationality actually has little to do with behavioral economics. Context is an important consideration when one considers what behavior is rational and what behavior is not. Rather than use the term “irrational” to describe human beings, the authors assert that humans are “infinitely complex” and behavior that is often considered irrational is entirely situational.

Schoar, Antoinette and Saugato Datta. “The Power of Heuristics.” Ideas42. January 2014. https://bit.ly/2UDC5YK.

  • This paper explores the notion that being presented with a bevy of options can be desirable in many situations, but when making an intelligent decision requires a high-level understanding of the nuances of vastly different financial aid packages, for example, options can overwhelm. Heuristics (rules of thumb) provide helpful guidelines that “enable people to make ‘reasonably good’ decisions without needing to understand all the complex nuances of the situation.”
  • The underlying goal heuristics in the policy space involves giving people the type of “rules of thumb” that enable make good decisionmaking regarding complex topics such as finance, healthcare and education. The authors point to the benefit of asking individuals to remember smaller pieces of knowledge by referencing a series of studies conducted by psychologists Beatty and Kahneman that showed people were better able to remember long strings of numbers when they were broken into smaller segments.
  • Schoar and Datta recommend these four rules when implementing heuristics:
    • Use heuristics where possible, particularly in complex situation;
    • Leverage new technology (such as text messages and Internet-based tools) to implement heuristics.
    • Determine where heuristics can be used in adult training programs and replace in-depth training programs with heuristics where possible; and
    • Consider how to apply heuristics in situations where the exception is the rule. The authors point to the example of savings and credit card debt. In most instances, saving a portion of one’s income is a good rule of thumb. However, when one has high credit card debt, paying off debt could be preferable to building one’s savings.

Thaler, Richard H. and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Yale University Press, 2008. https://bit.ly/2kNXroe.

  • This book, likely the single piece of scholarship most responsible for bringing the concept of nudges into the public consciousness, explores how a strategic “choice architecture” can help people make the best decisions.
  • Thaler and Sunstein, while advocating for the wider and more targeted use of nudges to help improve people’s lives without resorting to overly paternal regulation, look to five common nudges for lessons and inspiration:
    • The design of menus gets you to eat (and spend) more;
    • “Flies” in urinals improve, well, aim;
    • Credit card minimum payments affect repayment schedules;
    • Automatic savings programs increase savings rate; and
    • “Defaults” can improve rates of organ donation.
  • In the simplest terms, the authors propose the wider deployment of choice architectures that follow “the golden rule of libertarian paternalism: offer nudges that are most likely to help and least likely to inflict harm.”

U.K. Parliament Science and Technology Committee. “Behaviour Change.” July 2011. http://bit.ly/1cbYv5j.

  • This report from the U.K.’s Science and Technology Committee explores the government’s attempts to influence the behavior of its citizens through nudges, with a focus on comparing the effectiveness of nudges to that of regulatory interventions.
  • The author’s central conclusion is that, “non-regulatory measures used in isolation, including ‘nudges,’ are less likely to be effective. Effective policies often use a range of interventions.”
  • The report’s other major findings and recommendations are:
    • Government must invest in gathering more evidence about what measures work to influence population behaviour change;
    • They should appoint an independent Chief Social Scientist to provide them with robust and independent scientific advice;
    • The Government should take steps to implement a traffic light system of nutritional labelling on all food packaging; and
    • Current voluntary agreements with businesses in relation to public health have major failings. They are not a proportionate response to the scale of the problem of obesity and do not reflect the evidence about what will work to reduce obesity. If effective agreements cannot be reached, or if they show minimal benefit, the Government should pursue regulation.”

‘Nudge Unit’ forming mutual joint venture


Press Release: “The government’s Behavioural Insights Team – also known as the Nudge Unit – has teamed up with Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, to create a new mutual joint venture, Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude announced today.
The mutual joint venture will be a new UK-based company, paying taxes, exporting services across the world and helping get Britain on the rise.
The Behavioural Insights Team, which was set up in 2010 with a mission to find innovative ways of enabling people to make better choices for themselves and society, is now a world-leader in the application of insights from the behavioural sciences and credited with helping the UK government save millions of pounds for the taxpayer.
As a result, they have received an increasing number of requests to help apply insights from the behavioural sciences to tackle public policy problems, both at home and overseas. As of today, the team – which will continue to be known as the Behavioural Insights Team – is able to service this demand from any part of the UK public sector, charities and foreign governments. The new company will also be able to work with commercial organisations, where there is an underlying social purpose to the project….
The deal forms part of the government’s commitment to drive innovation in government commercial models – a central commitment in the Civil Service Reform Plan – and follows on from the launch of the civil service pension provider MyCSP in April 2012, which became the first mutual joint venture to spin out of government, and the launch of SSCL Ltd late last year in a joint venture with Steria Ltd to run shared services for Whitehall departments.
The government is determined to look beyond the old binary choice between in-house provision and outsourcing. As such they are working to develop a hybrid economy with a diverse range of suppliers from the mutual joint ventures to the voluntary sector, from in-house provision to straight sourcing.”

Belonging: Solidarity and Division in Modern Societies


New book by Montserrat Guibernau: “It is commonly assumed that we live in an age of unbridled individualism, but in this important new book Montserrat Guibernau argues that the need to belong to a group or community – from peer groups and local communities to ethnic groups and nations – is a pervasive and enduring feature of modern social life.
The power of belonging stems from the potential to generate an emotional attachment capable of fostering a shared identity, loyalty and solidarity among members of a given community. It is this strong emotional dimension that enables belonging to act as a trigger for political mobilization and, in extreme cases, to underpin collective violence.
Among the topics examined in this book are identity as a political instrument; emotions and political mobilization; the return of authoritarianism and the rise of the new radical right; symbols and the rituals of belonging; loyalty, the nation and nationalism. It includes case studies from Britain, Spain, Catalonia, Germany, the Middle East and the United States.”

Don’t believe the hype about behavioral economics


Allison Schrager: “I have a confession to make: I think behavioral economics is over-rated. Recently, Nobelist Robert Shiller called on economists to incorporate more psychology into their work. While there are certainly things economists can learn from psychology and other disciplines to enrich their understanding of the economy, this approach is not a revolution in economics. Often models that incorporate richer aspects of human behavior are the same models economists always use—they simply rationalize seemingly irrational behavior. Even if we can understand why people don’t always act rationally, it’s not clear if that can lead to better economic policy and regulation.

Mixing behavioral economics and policy raises two questions: should we change behavior and if so, can we? Sometimes people make bad choices—they under-save, take on too much debt or risk. These behaviors appear irrational and lead to bad outcomes, which would seem to demand more regulation. But if these choices reflect individuals’ preferences and values can we justify changing their behavior? Part of a free-society is letting people make bad choices, as long as his or her irrational economic behavior doesn’t pose costs to others. For example: Someone who under-saves may wind up dependent on taxpayers for financial support. High household debt has been associated with a weaker economy

It’s been argued that irrational economic behavior merits regulation to encourage or force choices that will benefit both the individual and the economy as a whole. But the limits of these policies are apparent in a new OECD report on the application of behavioral economics to policy. The report gives examples of regulations adopted by different OECD countries that draw on insights from behavioral economics. Thus it’s disappointing that, with all economists have learned studying behavioral economics the last ten years,   the big changes in regulation seem limited to more transparent fee disclosure, a ban on automatically selling people more goods than they explicitly ask for, and standard disclosures fees and energy use. These are certainly good policies. But is this a result of behavioral economics (helping consumers over-come behavioral bias that leads to sub-optimal choices) or is it simply requiring banks and merchants to be more honest?

Poor risk management and short-term thinking on Wall Street nearly took down the entire financial system. Can what we know about behavioral finance regulate Wall Street? According to Shiller, markets are inefficient and misprice assets because of behavioral biases (over-confidence, under-reaction to news, home bias). This leads to speculative bubbles. But it’s not clear what financial regulation can do to curb this behavior. According Gene Fama, Shiller’s co-laureate who believes markets are rational, (Disclosure: I used to work at Dimensional Fund Advisors where Fama is a consultant and shareholder) it’s not possible to systematically separate “irrational” behavior (that distorts prices) from healthy speculation, which aids price discovery. If speculators (who have an enormous financial interest) don’t know better, how can we expect regulators to?…

So far, the most promising use of behavioral economics has been in retirement saving. Automatically enrolling people into a company pension plan and raising their saving rates has been found to increase savings—especially among people not inclined to save. That is probably why the OECD report concedes behavioral economics has had the biggest impact in retirement saving….

The OECD report cites some other new policies based on behavioral science like the the 2009 CARD act in America. Credit card statements used to only list the minimum required payment, which people may have interpreted as a suggested payment plan and wound up taking years to pay their balance, incurring large fees. Now, in the US, statements must include how much it will cost to pay your balance within 36 months and the time and cost required to repay your balance if you pay the minimum. It’s still too early to see how this will impact behavior, but a 2013 study suggests it will offer modest savings to consumers, perhaps because the bias to under-value the future still exists.

But what’s striking from the OECD report is, when it comes to behavioral biases that contributed to the financial crisis (speculation on housing, too much housing debt, under-estimating risk), few policies have used what we’ve learned.”

Continued Progress: Engaging Citizen Solvers through Prizes


Blog post by Cristin Dorgelo: “Today OSTP released its second annual comprehensive report detailing the use of prizes and competitions by Federal agencies to spur innovation and solve Grand Challenges. Those efforts have expanded in the last two years under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which granted all Federal agencies the authority to conduct prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their core missions.
This year’s report details the remarkable benefits the Federal Government reaped in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 from more than 45 prize competitions across 10 agencies. To date, nearly 300 prize competitions have been implemented by 45 agencies through the website Challenge.gov.
Over the past four years, the Obama Administration has taken important steps to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox. In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. In March 2010, the Office of Management and Budget issued a policy framework to guide agencies in using prizes to mobilize American ingenuity and advance their respective core missions. Then, in September 2010, the Administration launched Challenge.gov, a one-stop shop where entrepreneurs and citizen solvers can find public-sector prize competitions.
The prize authority in COMPETES is a key piece of this effort. By giving agencies a clear legal path and expanded authority to deploy competitions and challenges, the legislation makes it dramatically easier for agencies to enlist this powerful approach to problem-solving and to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives…
To support these ongoing efforts, the General Services Administration  continues to train agencies about resources and vendors available to help them administer prize competitions. In addition, NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) provides other agencies with a full suite of services for incentive prize pilots – from prize design, through implementation, to post-prize evaluation”

The Documented Life


Sherry Turkle in the New York Times: “I’ve been studying people and mobile technology for more than 15 years. Until recently, it was the sharing that seemed most important. People didn’t seem to feel like themselves unless they shared a thought or feeling, even before it was clear in their mind. The new sensibility played on the Cartesian with a twist: “I share, therefore I am.”

These days, we still want to share, but now our first focus is to have, to possess, a photograph of our experience.

I interview people about their selfies. It’s how they keep track of their lives….We interrupt conversations for documentation all the time.

A selfie, like any photograph, interrupts experience to mark the moment. In this, it shares something with all the other ways we break up our day, when we text during class, in meetings, at the theater, at dinners with friends. And yes, at funerals, but also more regularly at church and synagogue services. We text when we are in bed with our partners and spouses. We watch our political representatives text during sessions.

Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does thing to us, changing not just what we do but who we are. The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us “on pause” in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations “on pause” when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.

We don’t experience interruptions as disruptions anymore….”

Using Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy to reduce crime


Paper of the week selected by the British Nudge Unit: “The paper we would like to highlight this week describes a large-scale randomised controlled trial aimed at improving life outcomes for disadvantaged youth.

Preventing youth violence and dropout: a randomized field experiment (April 25, 2013)
Sara B. Heller, Harold A. Pollack, Roseanna Ander and Jens Ludwig
The paper presents promising results from a trial in which teenagers were offered after-school programming in combination with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helps people reconsider biased beliefs they have about the world. In the domain of crime this includes learning to avoid overestimating the extent to which others want to hurt or harm someone else (i.e. hostile attribution bias).
The trial was run in 18 public schools in some of Chicago’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. 2,740 young males were offered either to participate in the programme (treatment group) or not (control group). Around half of those in the treatment group actually participated – on average for 13 sessions over the course of a year. Offering them the programme reduced the rate at which they were arrested for violent crime by 3.3 percentage points, from 16.7 percentage points in the control group. This is a fall of 20%.
Click here to access the paper”

Britain’s Ministry of Nudges


in the New York Times: “A 24-year-old psychologist working for the British government, Mr. Gyani was supposed to come up with new ways to help people find work. He was intrigued by an obscure 1994 study that tracked a group of unemployed engineers in Texas. One group of engineers, who wrote about how it felt to lose their jobs, were twice as likely to find work as the ones who didn’t. Mr. Gyani took the study to a job center in Essex, northeast of London, where he was assigned for several months. Sure, it seemed crazy, but would it hurt to give it a shot? Hayley Carney, one of the center’s managers, was willing to try.

Ms. Carney walked up to a man slumped in a plastic chair in the waiting area as Mr. Gyani watched from across the room. The man — 28, recently separated and unemployed for most of his adult life — was “our most difficult case,” Ms. Carney said later.

“How would you like to write about your feelings” about being out of a job? she asked the man. Write for 20 minutes. Once a week. Whatever pops into your head.

An awkward silence followed. Maybe this was a bad idea, Mr. Gyani remembers thinking.

But then the man shrugged. Why not? And so, every week, after seeing a job adviser, he would stay and write. He wrote about applying for dozens of jobs and rarely hearing back, about not having anything to get up for in the morning, about his wife who had left him. He would reread what he had written the week before, and then write again.

Over several weeks, his words became less jumbled. He started to gain confidence, and his job adviser noticed the change. Before the month was out, he got a full-time job in construction — his first.

An Idea Born in America

Did the writing exercise help the man find a job? Even now it’s hard for Mr. Gyani to say for sure. But it was the start of a successful research trial at the Essex job center — one that is part of a much larger social experiment underway in Britain. A small band of psychologists and economists is quietly working to transform the nation’s policy making. Inspired by behavioral science, the group fans out across the country to job centers, schools and local government offices and tweaks bureaucratic processes to better suit human nature. The goal is to see if small interventions that don’t cost much can change behavior in large ways that serve both individuals and society.

It is an American idea, refined in American universities and popularized in 2008 with the best seller “Nudge,” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Professor Thaler, a contributor to the Economic View column in Sunday Business, is an economist at the University of Chicago, and Mr. Sunstein was a senior regulatory official in the Obama administration, where he applied behavioral findings to a range of regulatory policies, but didn’t have the mandate or resources to run experiments.

But it is in Britain that such experiments have taken root.  Prime Minister David Cameron has embraced the idea of testing the power of behavioral change to devise effective policies, seeing it not just as a way to help people make better decisions, but also to help government do more for less.

In 2010, Mr. Cameron set up the Behavioral Insights Team or nudge unit, as it’s often called. Three years later, the team has doubled in size and is about to announce a joint venture with an external partner to expand the program.

The unit has been nudging people to pay taxes on time, insulate their attics, sign up for organ donation, stop smoking during pregnancy and give to charity — and has saved taxpayers tens of millions of pounds in the process, said David Halpern, its director. Every civil servant in Britain is now being trained in behavioral science. The nudge unit has a waiting list of government departments eager to work with it, and other countries, from Denmark to Australia, have expressed interest.

In fact, five years after it arrived in Washington, nudging appears to be entering the next stage, with a new team in the White House planning to run policy trials inspired in part by Britain’s program. “First the idea traveled to Britain and now the lessons are traveling back,” said Professor Thaler, who is an official but unpaid adviser to the nudge unit. “Britain is the first country that has mainstreamed this on a national level.”

See also: A Few Findings of Britain’s Nudge