Governed by ‘econs’? Behavioural economics and irrational policymakers

Governed by ‘econs’ - Behavioural economics and irrational policymakers
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Date(s) - 16/05/2011
5:30 pm - 7:00 pm

British Library Conference Centre

A British Library and Strategic Society Centre joint debate exploring how behavioural economics can be used to understand decision-making within the policy process.

Date and time: 17:30-19.00, Monday May 16th 2011

Location: British Library Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB

Behavioural economics has in recent years become a fashionable source of ideas and insight to help policymakers improve the effectiveness of public policy and its interaction with the public. David Cameron famously instructed his Shadow Cabinet to read “Nudge”; the high-profile book on how behavioural economics and its account of human behaviour can be used to improve policy design.

However, there is now growing interest within political science in turning the lens of behavioural economics to focus the other way: on the decisions of policymakers.

Both civil servants and politicians are “humans” rather than the “econs” of economic theory, and as such, their actions and decision-making must be subject to the irrational tendencies highlighted by behavioural economists. Such effects may be particularly noticeable when decisions are taken under time pressures and other constraints. However, even within the ordered process of policymaking, issues of framing and aversion to uncertainty may affect the many small, but subjective judgements and interpretations that characterise the policymaking process. Behavioural economics may also offer insight into the institutional aspects of policymaking, such as the operation of ‘norms’ and the perception of outside-threats, such as from the media.

This event explored:

  • What are the key insights and hypotheses of behavioural economics that can be used to illuminate and explain policymaking decisions?
  • As a potential explanatory theory of policymaking, how can behavioural economics enhance existing approaches within political science, such as ‘agenda-setting’ and ‘interest-group’ theory, that seek to explain the policymaking process?
  • If behavioural economics can offer a new and insightful account of decision-making by policymakers, can an awareness and understanding of these issues be used to improve decisions?

Speakers at this event comprised:

  • Dr Adam Oliver, Senior Lecturer, LSE
  • Gerry Stoker, Professor of Politics and Governance, University of Southampton

The event was chaired by James Lloyd, Director, Strategic Society Centre.

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