Individual Agency in Behavioral Public Policy: New Knowledge Problems

Author: Malte Dold, Pomona College


Taking psychology seriously in behavioral public policy (BPP) means to acknowledge the context-dependent and dynamic nature of people’s preferences. Preferences adapt to situational context factors and sociocultural circumstances. Moreover, people often do not have given preferences but form them in the act of choosing. Insights on passive and active preference change pose a serious problem to the idea of nudging in BPP since it questions the policy analysts’ ability to detect people’s well-integrated ‘true’ preferences. Given this epistemic difficulty, some authors have recently begun to argue for agency-enhancing interventions in BPP, such as assistive cuing and boosts. Unlike nudges that re-bias people, these psychologically informed policy interventions aim at de-biasing people by enhancing their reasoning capacities. The agency-centric approach to BPP is laudable from a methodological perspective since it addresses intricacies of context dependent preferences. It is also laudable from a normative perspective since it takes the liberal idea of individual self-determination seriously. Yet, it creates ‘new’ knowledge problems that have not yet been sufficiently addressed in the literature. This article argues that the epistemic challenge of an agency-centric BPP stems from, among other things, (a) its commitment to algorithmic analysis that models actual decision-making processes (in contrast to a reliance on algebraic analysis and as-if models) and (b) the difficulty to differentiate motivational from epistemic concerns that would allow the analyst to identify reasoning failures. This article discusses these challenges and ultimately defends a psychologically grounded agency-oriented approach to BPP that highlights the value of autonomy, i.e., people’s capacity to scrutinize, act on, and identify with their evolving preferences. Such an approach attenuates some of the epistemic problems by shifting the policy focus from process facilitation and situational choice architecture toward institutional analysis.

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