10 Monitor on Psychology • November 2015
The White House says more federal programs should tap behavioral science
Obama urges agencies to use behavioral science to become more effective.
Every fall, more than 20 percent of students from urban
school districts who have been accepted to college fail to enroll
because they don’t complete such necessary tasks as filling out
financial aid or course enrollment forms. But small reminders
can make a difference. Researchers from a U.S. Department of
Education-sponsored project sent a series of nine text messages
to thousands of these students, reminding them to complete
each necessary step to enrollment. Among the lowest-income
students, the reminders raised enrollment rates from 66. 4 to
72. 1 percent compared with a control group.
That study is part of a report issued in September by the Social
and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST), a federal interagency
research and advisory group dedicated to using social and
behavioral science to make government programs work better.
The team, centered at the White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy and led by cognitive scientist Maya Shankar,
PhD, first convened last year. In September, it reported the
results of 15 pilot studies, including the college enrollment study.
Inspired by the team’s success, on Sept. 15 President Obama
signed an executive order urging all federal agencies to incorporate
behavioral science insights into the government’s work.
Two APA Fellows are key to the effort: Irina Feygina, PhD, a
former APA Congressional Fellow, has been working with the
team during her tenure at the White House Office of Science
and Technology Policy, and APA Executive Branch Science
Fellow Matthew D. Johnson, PhD, is the National Institute of
Justice’s liaison to the team.
The team’s work is inspired by the research of social and
behavioral scientists, such as that popularized by Richard
Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book “Nudge.” That
research has shown that small changes in how options are
presented can help people make better decisions in areas as
diverse as health, saving for retirement and paying taxes. The
United Kingdom established a similar group, the Behavioral
Insights Team (sometimes called the “nudge unit”) in 2010.
Other pilot studies in the SBST report include one in
which researchers nearly doubled the rate at which military
service members opened retirement savings accounts by using
behavioral principles to design more effective email messages.
In another study, researchers raised the rate of double-sided
printing among some USDA staff by 5. 8 percent by adding a
dialogue box that popped up each time an employee printed a
single-sided document that asked them to change their default
to double-sided printing, a change that over time will result in
significant reductions in costs and waste.
“I think that this is a tremendous step forward for the
government,” says Wendy Wood, PhD, the 2016 president of
Div. 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology). “It’s a
great innovation to actually use behavioral science to make
policy initiatives more efficient, and to make sure they have the
APA will track both the team’s work and the impact of the
executive order. “We will help federal agencies implement the
President’s order by identifying relevant behavioral science and
suggesting how it can be applied to better meet the needs of
citizens. The goal is to enable agencies to use science effectively
and ethically,” says Howard Kurtzman, PhD, acting executive
director of APA’s Science Directorate.
— Lea Winerman