Cognitive Science and Policy Making

Course Description: 

How can cognitive science (Cognitive Science, Experimental and Behavioral Economics) inform policy-making? Can policy be improved by taking findings of cognitive science into account?

Traditional policy making assumes that citizens are rational agents who always take the best decisions for themselves. Yet, findings in behavioral economics and cognitive psychology show that it is not the case: people are “predictably irrational”. This fact might open new avenues for making policies that foster individual decisions that are better for both the individual taking them and society.

The course addresses both the method and the moral basis of the use of cognitive psychology in policy making. This includes issues in contemporary political philosophy regarding the legitimacy of using scientific theories about human behavior for political purposes. It also include issues in behavioral economics and a specification of its relevance to policy making. 

Structure of the course

The course will includeold fashioned lectures, seminars and labs/fairs organized as discussion. A lecture summarizes the main theoretical and empirical advances in each topic, and the seminar is devoted to the discussion of the reading material and the lab to apply these concepts to improve 

policies for current issues. Students are also required to write an essay on a topic agreed with the lecturers.

The sessions will unfold as follow:
1. What is a Nudge: core of the theory (sessions 1-5)

  • Why policy making should be informed by cognitive psychology? (What is a Nudge)

  • Cognitive bias: what is it? Which cognitive biases are they? What is it to make a

    rational decision? (Intro to decision theory)

  • How can we document rational biases? (Intro to experimental economics)

  • When and how can we nudge? (analysis of what a choice architecture is, with exam- ples)

  • How does the environment influence decision making? (Intro to embedded and dis- tributed cognition)

2.  Good and bad nudges (sessions 6-9)
  • Is it morally acceptable to nudge? (Issues in moral and political philosophy) When is it justified to nudge? When is it efficient?

  • How to assess the efficiency of a nudge? (Evidence based policy making)

3. Further applications and examples (sessions 10-12)
  • Can we nudge people to make more prosocial choices?

  • Nudges in developing countries: what is the state of the matter?

  • Is there a specific way to efficiently nudge the poor?

  • You (students), what kind of nudge could you think of? (students shall present a nudge of their own design or critically examine an existing nudge.) 

Learning Outcomes: 
In this course, students will acquire knowledge about, and will reflect on:
  • theories in cognitive science deemed to be relevant to policy making; these mainly include experimental work on biases in decision-making.
  • specific applications of policy-making informed by cognitive psychology/science, behavioral economics, game theory, whether exploiting the theories of psychology for policy-making can be understood as beneficial or even acceptable, depending on one’s ethical principles 
  • All students must read the core reading before the lectures and seminars. Students are expected to contribute to class discussion and should have ready, each week, at least one question based on the texts and that could be fruitfully addressed during class discussion. Participation will count as 15% of the final grade.

  • Each student will present one paper to the class. For this presentation, we encourage preparing a handout that summarizes the goals of the papers, their main arguments and the method and evidence they rely on. We discourage the use of power point if that hinders engaging presentations.

    Presenting a paper will make 20% of the final grade. We will expect clarity and concise- ness when explaining and criticizing arguments. We encourage the expression of critical thinking.

  • Registered students must submit a final essay of no more than 2,000 words at the end of the term. It will either be an independent position paper, a critical review of a relevant book, paper or set of papers, or the description of a new nudge. The subject should be decided as early as possible together with one of the instructor

    The final essay will make 30% of the final grade.

  • Presentation of a nudge in the nudge fair. This work will be done in groups. The presented nudge should be thoroughly analyzed: What are the psychological evidence that the nudge is needed? In what way would the presented nudge improve people’s life? Does it respect those nudged (nudgee)? Does it go against their autonomy? What experiment (lab or field) would enable assessing the efficiency of the nudge?

    This work will make 20% of the final grade.

  • Short tests and/or assignments.

    This will make 15% of the final grade. 

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