The Golden Age of Behavioral Research (and the funding cuts that may take the shine off)

Posted on July 8, 2011  /  2 Comments

I co-taught an experimental graduate seminar with one of my colleagues at Ohio State University in the early nineties where we explored what policy could learn from research on how people actually behaved, thought and decided. I taught the first half of the seminar by deconstructing various policy and regulatory debates (dominated by lawyers and economists) to lay bare the fundamental (and unexamined) assumptions regarding human behavior. She taught the second half, talking about how behavioral research could challenge or confirm those assumptions. This then led to multiple funded projects and dissertations that she directed on policy-relevant social science research.

It was possibly because of this “priming” (a key concept in contemporary behavioral research) that I was unquestioningly amenable to the suggestion to study how poor people actually used ICTs that came from the research planning sessions we conducted as part of the launch of LIRNEasia in September 2004. Randy Spence, our champion within IDRC at that time, was a key proponent. So since 2005, LIRNEasia has been studying how those at the Bottom of the Pyramid use ICTs (mostly mobiles) and feeding those results into our other research and to the policy and regulatory processes in the countries that we work in. For example, we pulled back from giving high priority to mobile number portability based on Teleuse @ BOP research.

We are avid followers of the behavioral economics literature (associated with Kahneman, Thaler, et al.) and are working on a reconceptualization of the consumer and his/her “protection” in the light of learnings from behavioral economics. We also know that the very success of the mobile-driven narrowband model is drying up research funds for research such as Teleuse@BOP.

So we resonate with the comments of one of the most interesting newspaper columnists around, David Brooks, who takes this example from a book called Nudge, authored by Thaler and Sunstein:

Fortunately, today we are in the middle of a golden age of behavioral research. Thousands of researchers are studying the way actual behavior differs from the way we assume people behave. They are coming up with more accurate theories of who we are, and scores of real-world applications. Here’s one simple example:

When you renew your driver’s license, you have a chance to enroll in an organ donation program. In countries like Germany and the U.S., you have to check a box if you want to opt in. Roughly 14 percent of people do. But behavioral scientists have discovered that how you set the defaults is really important. So in other countries, like Poland or France, you have to check a box if you want to opt out. In these countries, more than 90 percent of people participate.
. . . .
This is a gigantic behavior difference cued by one tiny and costless change in procedure.

Yet in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research, there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced — by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.


  1. Sadly it is even more imbalanced than suggested here. Social science and humanities programs are bearing the brunt of major funding cuts in education in most so-called “developed” countries, while their economic recovery policies – ignoring what we know about behavioral and institutional economics – are based on ideology and prejudice. But not in China.

  2. ashok Jhunjhunwala

    it will be a sad day if it happens. It will only accentuate economic problems rather than solving any..