What’s the future for behavioural sciences in public policy?

My colleague Max Burton-Chellew and I were sitting in a brilliant Lecture by the behavioural economist George Lowenstein last month. His lecture was refreshing in how clearly he described where the policy implications of his work fit within the bigger picture. This set us talking and afterwards, Max and I (again) found ourselves talking about the limited ways policymakers apply lessons from the behavioural sciences at present.

After the talk, Max wrote a short article on his brilliant science micro-blog page. I’ve pasted what he wrote at the end of my post as I want more people to read it and he sets it out better than I could.

While, of course, I’m very exciting about the growth of behaviourally-inspired policy, I’m concerned about the directions it’s currently going in. Today, I think that behavioural-insights inspired policy is putting the onus too heavily on ‘nudging’ individual decision-makers to do better. It’s understandably popular – it appears to offer politicians the promise of behaviour change for free. However this focus on individual choice is an incomplete application of behavioural insights. Most obviously, it ignores how profoundly the social, physical, economic and cultural environment a person experiences affects how they make life decisions, perceive and interact with people and the wider world. If we want to use behavioural insights to shift behaviour by more than a few per cent, we will need to do better.

Moreover, I think if the current approach does not change, critics will become more vocal and there’s a real risk that public opinion could turn against behaviourally-inspired policy altogether … especially after blunders like this, which reveal how easy it is to make mistakes:


Screen Shot 2014-05-29 at 18.40.59

Such mistakes can be forgiven, as behavioural-insight inspired policymaking is still very new. However, moving forward, I see really exciting opportunities for a broad community of researchers, especially those who speak more than ‘economicus‘. Policymakers can, and must, benefit from research that combines the experimental tools of economics with the techniques and rich literatures in psychology, sociology, anthropology and even behavioural ecology. This will allow them to understand how an individual’s decision-making varies in the different communities and organisations they belong to.

It’s exciting to think that in the future, policymakers will incorporate insights from so many behavioural disciplines….some of this work may not be quite so popular with austerity-first politicians (as I doubt you can ‘nudge’ an environment for free)…but I think it could lead to better, more effective policies that can help solve the big challenges our societies’ face. OK rant over! Thanks for reading.


Here’s Max’s article he wrote on his passle microblog (https://max.passle.net/ – go check it out!):

The potential costs and benefits of applying behavioural economics to public-policy

Behavioural economics offers the potential to improve public and individual welfare at relatively little cost, by ‘nudging’ people towards more optimal choices, in what is termed libertarian or soft paternalism. The application of behavioural economics to public policy has the potential to increase rates of organ donation, tax returns and other socially beneficent behaviours without the use of coercion or fines, and therefore it appears to be a win-win situation, but is it so simple?

Behavioural economics has been heralded as a revolutionary paradigm for understanding human decision making, but actually it is basically just the application of psychology to decision making. In fact much of the knowledge was already implicitly known by large businesses and advertising firms, who were ‘nudging’ us towards their desired outcomes via such nudges as buy one get one free, and celebrities wear our clothes, why don’t you? (thank you to Thom Scott-Phillips for crystallising this view). Therefore this new field is only revolutionary if you previously subscribed to a strict form of classical economics that rested entirely on the foundation of rational choice and revealed preferences. This form can be summarised by the tautological axiom: “People choose what they prefer, and [we know what] they prefer [by] what they choose”.

So why do you keep on hearing about behavioural economics (I could have picked one of many features from various broadsheets, but this rather old link was most relevant to this post)? Well, there are two things that make nudging so appealing to cash-strapped governments nowadays, and hence why it keeps on appearing in the news; 1) nudging is soft government, it still lets people have freedom of choice; and 2) it offers temptingly large effects from almost cost free interventions. These aspects are particularly attractive to more right-wing governments that wish to reduce big government and advocate freedom of choice in free-markets. In contrast, left-wing governments applying nudging are at risk of being perceived as a hyper-nanny state.

As behavioural economics is largely the application of psychology to decision making, and the use of randomized controlled trials to test if policy implementations actually work, I am mostly a fan. However there is a danger that by focussing on how to shift people’s choices, in attempts such as trying to reduce obesity, reduce unemployment, or increase saving rates, it allows the creation of a narrative that suggests people are solely to blame for their own failings (i.e. misfortune). I’m sure this wasn’t the intention of those who created the field of behavioural economics, but it is a potential by-product that we may want to guard against.

Otherwise political campaigners may abuse behavioural economics, similar to how Darwinism was abused to justify prejudiced views in the 1930’s, and our political discussions and policy designs may end up implying everyone could be healthy, wealthy and happy, if only they changed their behaviour to match the behaviour of the rich and successful. In other words you are not poor, obese or unwell because of deeper societal structures such as inequality in education, sports facilities, housing or health-care, but because you basically prefer choices that make you poor, obese or unwell. Where have we heard that before?”

For more see these articles;






I have a new popular science microblog!

Claire's Passle PageI’ve teamed up with a start-up company, that is soon going to be launching a new microblogging website passle.net …I’ve long wanted somewhere I can easily share random thoughts and amusing, thought-provoking, bad or just plain weird science stories…and now I can. Click here to see it.


How to survive the Oxford interview

Inside the Oxford interview

I’ve just finished the Oxford undergrad interviews. After two long days, where we saw 30 students for 20 minutes each, I thought I’d give some tips and thoughts on the whole interview thing.

The competition was very very tough – we had just 5 places for 24 students, basically all with straight A*/A at GCSE and A-level, lots of proven interest in the subject, a host of other extra-curricular accolades. These included being on the UK ski team, county rugby, junior Olympians and grade 8 in music. Some were brilliant, most were very good, a few we frankly thought were stupid, and made us wonder how the hell they’d got such outstanding grades. As a fellow who was interviewing for another subject said to me yesterday ‘they are good enough when they answer the question better than you could have done’….basically he was right.

So what did we talk about? To a large degree, it depended on what you wrote…so here is my biggest tip:

Tell us in your personal statement about a specific biological idea you want to talk about e.g. “On a school trip to the Natural History museum, I really enjoyed seeing the stuffed birds – particularly the peacock. I was fascinated by their degree of ornamentation and I wanted to understand why they evolved to be that way, so I read ‘The Red Queen’ by Matt Ridley.”


Why do peacocks have such big tails?

Try to pick a topic you are genuinely interested about (it’s OK to free your inner geek!) It could be anything (we had people talk in their statements about Lichens, breeding pet tropical fish, breeding pet rabbits, volunteering on sea turtle conservation projects, family genetically inherited illness, mind controlling parasites, models of population dynamics, the effect of climate change on bird migratory patterns, why peacocks have such big tails)…there were of course lots of gene/cell things, but I can’t remember them as I’m a naturalist at heart!

What are the interviews like?

The interview would start with the following patter: hello X, please come in, sit down, make yourself comfortable. Well we’ve just been reading your UCAS form and well done, you’ve got excellent grades and a really interesting personal statement and your teachers say very nice things about you, so well done. Now, there are lots of things on your statement we’d like to talk about, but in the time we have, I’d like to start by asking you…

For each, the interview would proceed similarly…1. Tell us about the thing you’re interested in e.g. why do peacocks have big tails? 2. Then a question to develop the idea e.g. Why then are there some species where the males and females look the same? We are normally wanting you to identify some underlying principles that put your interest in a bigger picture (e.g. the effect of competition and life history on the evolution of sexual dimorphism). 3. We’d often try to get you to define a word (e.g. what do you mean by ‘competition’)…these are not trick questions, if you know the topic, you should be able to answer them well…Try reading around the topic, maybe choose a good undergrad textbook e.g. Behavioural Ecology by Krebs, Davies and West….why not pick a topic from a chapter and write about that as an example?

Then came about one of three options…


Know what a book says, if you claim to have read it!

1. You said you’ve read [most common was Selfish Gene], could you please tell us what it says? [Hint – most people say selfish gene or blind watchmaker, which are obviously great as they are classics, but that also means we can compare you answer more easily, as we’ve heard several others answer the exact same question]…If you say you read a book, know what the book says, know how to summarise the book’s contents in 20 seconds, think what questions we may ask (e.g. you read the Selfish Gene, does it imply people are selfish? What behaviours can a gene’s-eye view explain that individual level perspectives could not? Do you know of any criticisms of the book?).

2. You said you like reading the New scientist, can you tell us about a recent article that you found particularly interesting? If you did not mention a magazine title, we’d often still ask for you to tell us about some recent scientific news. We don’t care which you choose! Just please pick one, make sure you remember it (several students got lost and fizzled out before explaining the idea with a ‘i can’t remember the details, but it was really cool’.) Details! Don’t be mentally arm-wavy!

3. I see you’re taking [maths/art/latin etc.] (i.e. not biology or chemistry), can you tell me how that subject might help you as a biologist? e.g. Art = observation, eye for detail, seeing patterns, creative thinking. Maths = stats, models, formulating theories. Latin = understanding species names, writing ability.

Here are some tips:

1. Know what is on your personal statement. Obvious, yes, but so many did not!

2. If we ask a broad question, just say something! We’re seeing lots of people, so whatever you do, don’t sit stumped going ‘ummm, I can’t think of an interesting global event that happened this year’…blood out of a stone students are not fun to teach!

3. If you don’t know the answer, just say so. We don’t expect you to know much yet, so it is no problem if you say ‘i don’t know’ to a specific question (as long as you dont say that to everything!). It means we can quickly move on to a topic you shine on, rather than spending time focusing on a weak spot. Bullshitting and pretending you know makes us think you’ll be hard to teach…of course though an educated guess is very welcome.

4. Be enthusiastic. sitting there, not making eye contact, hand over mouth, speaking in rambly monotone is bad (and we had that!). Equally, speaking at twice our volume, twice our speed, on the edge of your seat, wide eyed and assertive makes you overwhelming and a bit scary…again, a nightmare to teach. If we have to interrupt you, or look like we want to speak, shut up as it means your answers are too long. We know nerves do weird things, so we tried to ignore these things, but you can make it easier for us… The joys were genuinely interested people, who were enthusiastic, friendly and volunteered ideas. You do not need natural charming warmth, we also appreciated geeky awkwardness.

We’d end with a problem question. This year, we asked ‘how many ping pong balls can you fit inside a jumbo jet aeroplane?’ We want to see how the student thinks on their feet, whether they can come up with a sensible answer. ‘Ask 10000 people and take the average?’ ‘Fill it with water’…or approximate the jet to a cylinder and count the balls that fit in a 1m cube.

We’d then ask them if they had any questions for us…most did not, some did. A really staged fake question that was meant to fatter did them no favours (we were probably running late). An honest one did…e.g. I have a question because my friend and I were watching Casualty on TV last saturday, and we got in to an argument about the definition of death…she reckons when your heart stops and they say ‘time of death’ you’re not really dead. So can you tell me how you would define it? Of course, be prepared for us to turn the question around and ask it back at you!

Does the school I went to matter?
We do not care what school you went to.

It was obvious from their clothes, schools and demeanour that some students were extremely wealthy (also their statements…’my interest in biology developed whilst scuba diving in the maldives, costa rica and the red sea’…’I gained a sense of responsibility looking after my horse, which I ride 5x a week’ vs ‘I was fascinated by the courtship of the pigeons in my local park’, ‘it was watching the BBCs Frozen Planet, that inspired me to study biology’). I did not care, so long as they did not come across as arrogant know-it-alls!

For students from underrepresented backgrounds, there is a system of flags. These highlight if a student has been in care, has attended a school that does not have a history of sending people to Oxford, if they live in a poor area etc. We graded everyone equally, but if a flagged student was good, we definitely rooted for them over an equally impressive privately educated student. Some privileged students clearly had been helped and coached by experienced teachers, ensuring they had slick box-ticking personal statements and answers. Others (mostly from comprehensive schools) I would say had received no help, and wrote rambly vague statements. We maybe asked slightly different questions (so trained students could not just rely on carefully prepared answers), but I’m not convinced the level of preparation made that much difference (we chose 3 state school, 2 private school students this year).

Do nerves matter?
We tried everything possible to keep things unstressful. We wore very casual clothing, asked the students to do the same, sat on comfy sofas, chatted about the weather, tried to make jokes, and smiled a lot! I hope it helped…but it’s normal to be nervous. Interestingly, the students from state schools in general seemed far more relaxed, and were often nicer to talk to, I’m guessing because they had fewer preconceptions, maybe less family pressure, and took us at face value (i.e. two friendly people trying to be relaxed, nice and informal not some stereotype of a stuffy Oxford fellow). They wore more genuinely casual everyday clothing (the wealthier ones clearly had gone shopping for the event). One poor student was so nervous his struggled to talk as his heart was racing, he started to struggle to breath and we had to pause the interview as he nearly fainted! Another started hitting himself and sort of barking…rather disconcerting, but we pretended not to notice! By the way, being nervous is normal and I certainly did not mark anyone down for it…it shows you really care, and shows you are genuine. Slimy overconfidence is not a good look.

And PLEASE don’t be stupid
Stupid may be not very politically correct! But we had some fantastically poor answers. For example..if we give you a great crested grebe skull (medium sized, fish eating bird) and say ‘what do you think this might be’…we expect an answer like ‘is it a bone?’, ‘is it part of a skeleton’, ‘a skull’ or maybe even for top marks ‘is it a bird skull’…what we don’t expect (and we got confidently told) was…oh it’s an insect…and then pointing to the nostrils on the beak saying ‘this is where the wings attach’…or ‘oh cute, it’s a dinosaur, how lovely’…umm, my dear, if it WAS a dinosaur, you’d sure as hell not be holding it! And did you notice there was a bit of flesh still on the inside?! And it was certainly not an elbow joint either. Neither was the slab of limestone with fossilised shell impressions ‘oh one of those pavements where they get insects to make little footprints in it before it sets’.


Bird, insect or dinosaur?

What we want is natural enthusiasm and a brain that is functional and is asking itself questions…no need for expert knowledge, just two eyes and two ears and a switched on mind…oh, it’s a skull, it looks like a bird because of the beak, it’s very light, i guess because birds need to be light to fly, its beak is very pointed, i guess so it could poke at things, maybe the sand because the beak is very fragile, so it would not be strong enough to hit things like wood, it’s got big eye sockets, i guess that might mean it has good eyesight, it’s got a very aerodynamic shape like a torpedo, so maybe it has to move fast, maybe flying fast? etc. etc.

Final word
What else? I suppose the final word might be that if you screw up at one question, it’s not the end…the guy who thought the skull was an insect was amazing on stem cells and described population dynamics really well, and he’ll have a place. Clearly he had no interest in whole organisms, but that’s ok. We want a diversity, and a balance of students who love all aspects of biology.

I could no way have made it in to Oxford, I had neither the grades, nor the maturity at 18 to make it through the interview. I went to Edinburgh, and loved every second of it. Even the dean of an Oxford college recently told me he got poor exam grades in school (certainly not Oxford entry standard)…the point is, so many outstanding minds who will go on to be extraordinary people will not even make it to interview, let alone get offered a place. So if you get a no, don’t be too gutted…Oxford really is not for everyone (maybe I’ll write a post on what I mean by that) and you may well still be top class fellow material!

The Peloton’s Dilemma

I’ve greatly enjoyed the London 2012 fever that’s gripped the country, and have spent many happy hours watching sports I know nothing about. One such event was the men’s cycling road race. It may sound like watching people cycle along a road for the best part of 6 hours is only one grade above watching paint drying for excitement, but you’d be wrong. With my evolutionary biologist hat on, I was transfixed by the strategies of cooperation and competition that were being played out before me.

So the basic deal is this: leading the pack as a cyclist costs you heavily in terms of energy, so people must take turns leading, and share the benefits of being in the slip stream. Added to this, many were in teams, with four of five team mates taking the burden of leading the pack, and working together to protect their one ‘sprinter’ team mate, so he would stay in the best part of the slip stream during the race, and save his energy for the gold-rush at the end.

In the case of Team GB we had Mark Cavendish as our great hope for Gold, with his GB team mates, including Bradley Wiggins, who won the Tour de France the week before. We were massive favourites for gold, and because of this, we did not win gold. The reason was simple: the other members of the peloton (the main pack of cyclists) decided to free-ride on the efforts of team GB, and not help lead the pack. Their logic being that team GB were going for gold, so they would surely do what was needed to ensure the peloton stayed near the leaders.

Anyone who watched it, will know the result: team GB were unable to catch up on the leading pack, and Mark ended in 29th place. Afterwards some people blamed the Australian and German cyclists for not helping enough to lead the peloton as the explanation for the loss.

My question is this: does the same sort of ‘tragedy of the strong’ happen in nature? Imagine we have a group, where only a minority can reproduce and that reproduction is skewed (like gold, silver and bronze…gold is valued far higher than bronze) and that the only way of having a chance of reproducing at the end of ones life, is by cooperating together at the start. To match the cycling analogy, we could image the group is composed of sub-groups of relatives, who indirectly benefit from reproduction (like the national teams) – this effectively helps to amplify the inequalities in strength within the group. If our starting condition is one of inequality, might it happen that if you have one family group / individual that is better than the others that a tragedy of the commons type situation might arise because the other, weaker, groups will try to avoid cooperating and instead free ride on the efforts of the dominant group in order to sneak a silver or bronze position? Might this be relevant for, say, breeding where juvenile males might live together, but at some point will become competitors for mates?

It’s cool to think that watching hours of cycling races might help illuminate questions about life histories with cooperative and competitive phases and inequalities between individuals…at least I can justify watching the Tour de France in the name of science!

Compare the meerkat and the lawyer!

I recently had a long phone conversation with Hugh Crisp, a former partner at the law firm Freshfields who is now based at the Saïd Business School, about the insights that mole rats and meerkats can offer lawyers. No, it’s not April, I’m serious. I did wonder what my colleagues would think about the fact I was debating whether lawfirms were more like bee or mole rats, but it was remarkable how often I’d find myself saying ‘oh, well that problem occurs in nature, and it’s solved like this…’. This is not science…but it is fun, and if a sprinkling of biological examples help convince people that cut-throat individualism is not the most effective strategy out there, then bring it on!

It’s resulted in this FT article by Gillian Tett

Read it here: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/6f8c7922-d140-11e1-8957-00144feabdc0.html#axzz21joepIfQ

Compare the meerkat and the lawyer!

Overconfident about the evolution of overconfidence!


This paper on the evolution of overconfidence came out a couple of weeks ago in Nature. The authors claim that their simple model offers an explanation as to why humans are typically overconfident when faced with novel or uncertain situations, such as climate change or the financial crisis. In general, the I like the author – Dominic Johnstone’s – work. He wrote a great paper on the logic of cooperation a few years ago and did some interesting stuff using evolutionary thinking to study adaptation rates for the US Army and insurgents….the structural and incentive differences mean insurgents modify their behaviour far more rapidly than the Army can keep up with.

Unfortunately, I really dislike this latest paper. The only thing novel about it is the overconfidence spin – but sadly, their model is not really about the evolution of overconfidence. The novelty they introduce to a standard animal conflict model is a parameter, k, which they have defined as overconfidence; but that is a dangerously loaded term to give such a general parameter. Essentially, all the model shows is that when the cost of gaining a resource goes down, an individual is more likely to go for it – a basic result known since the 1970s. The model results also rest upon some unrealistic assumptions – such as that if the chance of an individual winning the resource is <0.5 then they won’t go for it – I don’t think this is realistic, as it would leave resources often unclaimed…what if a resource is extremely valuable, but there is only a 10% chance of winning it? Natural selection will often favour high-risk high-reward strategies.

What would a model need to show in order to convince me that overconfidence was an adaptive trait? I think you’d need two parameters – one giving your confidence that you can get a resource, and another reflecting how likely you can get the resource based upon an estimate of your personal quality (with an error included so we do not assume perfect information)…The ‘quality estimate’ trait value would vary with partner quality / resource value, but the ‘confidence’ trait value would be independent of resource / partner quality – consistently positive for overconfident, negative for under confident. We could then examine the evolution of the ‘confidence’ trait value (i.e. how over / under confident and individual is favoured to be) – my guess is that natural selection would favour this trait to go to 0 i.e. to have no consistent over / under confidence bias…but I’d love to see someone model it.

It’s a pity this paper made it through the review process, but the publications of papers of this quality happens so frequently, it is not surprising any more.