Move Over Economists: We Need a Council of Psychological Advisers

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Much of governing involves predicting behavior or getting people to change it. Lawyers and economists need some help with both.

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Engraving from Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica (Wikimedia Commons)

Though President Obama won reelection decisively, he won't have much time to celebrate. Many of the nation's problems -- stimulating employment, reducing the deficit, controlling health-care costs, and improving the quality of education -- are very serious, and some of them must be addressed with great urgency. And none of these problems can be addressed simply by waving a magic government wand. To a significant degree, they all involve understanding what motivates current practices -- of business-people, financiers, doctors, patients, teachers, students -- and what levers we may be able to use to change those practices.

Historically, when the need has arisen to change behavior, political leaders have turned to economists. That's one reason why presidents have a Council of Economic Advisers. When economists speak, presidents listen. And when economists have the president's ear, all their whispers are predicated on a set of assumptions about human behavior. Whether it's increasing GDP, reducing unemployment, sustaining Social Security, making sure people are financially prepared for retirement, or stabilizing the financial sector, economists commonly hold certain beliefs. They will for example argue that people are motivated by self-interest and are rational calculators of their interests, and that the most effective way to get people to change the way they behave is by creating the right material incentives.

Now, people are sometimes rational calculators, but often they are not. And self-interest and incentives certainly matter, but they aren't all that matters. The perspective of economists is importantly incomplete, sometimes even misguided.

That's why we need psychologists whispering in the president's other ear -- about the economy, but also about education, health care, and more. The United States needs a Council of Psychological Advisers -- a new body that would parallel and complement the Council of Economic Advisers -- to bring actual experts on human behavior into the most senior levels of conversation about how to change it.

IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE AND NEGATIVE EXPECTATIONS

Let's start by looking at the economy. Where did our financial institutions go wrong? And why did things get so out of hand? Why was there a housing "bubble"?

Somehow, "irrational exuberance" (as described by Robert Schiller) or "animal spirits" (as John Maynard Keynes dubbed them) overwhelmed rational calculations of risk and reward. These terms give the impression that a wild card or a joker -- something completely unpredictable and capricious -- thrusts itself into an otherwise perfectly rational system, and all hell breaks loose. Well, "irrational exuberance" and "animal spirits" are just sexy phrases for psychology, and psychologists have a good deal to say about both the causes and the consequences of these forces.

Economists offer little that helps us understand why bubbles occur or how they might be prevented. They also have little to tell us about how to prevent a "downward spiral of negative expectations" that makes fear of an economic downturn self-fulfilling.

Economists largely make assumptions about the rationality of human decision-making and proceed from there. Witness former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan's admission that he was mistaken during his time at the Fed in assuming that markets operate rationally and efficiently. The recent financial crisis and its persistent aftermath make it clear that ignoring the real psychology of "irrational" enthusiasm (or pessimism) can be perilous.

A Council of Psychological Advisers could help. This is not to say that macroeconomic variables don't matter and that the behavior of the economy is completely driven by the psychology of participants. Of course macroeconomic variables matter. But they are not, and never have been all that matters.

SAVINGS

And aside from the acute economic crisis of the last few years, what about the looming crisis that millions of Baby Boomers are entering retirement age with no pensions and accumulated savings (including 401ks) of less than $50,000? A rational decision maker would have been saving for retirement from day one, knowing that Social Security would never provide enough, even if it remains solvent. But for someone with knowledge of the psychological impediments to making near-term sacrifices in the service of future benefits, the inadequacy of American savings is hardly a surprise.

In creating a Council of Psychological Advisers, the U.S. would be following an enlightened trail already blazed by Britain and France 

We can do more than smirk and finger-wag at our short-sighted peers. Thanks to research by several people -- Shlomo Benartzi, Richard Thaler, David Laibson, and Brigitte Madrian among them -- we now know how to increase dramatically the amount of money people save for their retirement. These researchers are all economists, by the way, but they are economists who appreciate the importance of psychology.

And what do you do when you want to get people to spend rather than save, as both former president Bush and President Obama did when they struggled to stimulate economic recovery with tax rebates? The rebates by themselves would put more money in people's pockets, but that wouldn't help unless they spent it. When people got rebates under President Bush, they got them in lump-sum checks, and estimates are that about 50 percent of that money was spent. When people got the Obama rebates, they came as small additions to each paycheck. A substantially higher proportion of the money was spent, making for a more effective stimulus, even as (or perhaps because) people were less aware they were getting more money back.

Again, knowledge of the psychology of economic decision-making leads you to expect just such an effect. Indeed, the Obama rebates were delivered in the way they were for just this reason; he had people with psychological sophistication whispering in his ear.

When it comes to public policy, economics sits atop the social sciences. Since virtually any policy you can think of involves spending money, the advice of economists is always solicited. But if they don't do an adequate job advising about the economy itself, you can be sure that they fall short advising on other matters.

TEACHING TO THE TEST VS. TEACHING CHARACTER

There has been much justified hand wringing about the state of American education. We have clearly lost our privileged position in the world. Improving education will require recruiting and retaining excellent teachers and finding ways to motivate students. How can this worthy goal be achieved? At the moment, we're pointing in the direction of school choice and competition to produce better schools, higher pay to produce better teachers, big tests to monitor student performance, and financial incentives to motivate students. A bunch of carrots and sticks.

Will these kinds of measures be enough? A recent National Research Council review of efforts throughout the U.S. to incentivize school performance concluded that the effects have been small or non-existent, even when the incentives were substantial. And when big-test accountability does produce improvement in test scores, it is often as a result of teaching to the test or outright cheating. Research in psychology suggests that more important than pay (as long as it is adequate) are working conditions that allow teachers to be flexible, autonomous, and creative in their work with students, that provide them with mentoring, and that give teachers a sense that they are working in a community that has a common purpose.

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Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, and Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (with Kenneth Sharpe).

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