Cognitive Science and Policy Making

Course Description: 

How can cognitive science 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

Course Structure

The course will include old fashioned lectures, seminars organised as discussion over . A lecture summarizes the main theoretical and empirical advances in each topic, and the seminar is devoted to the discussion of the reading material. Students are also required to write an essay on a topic agreed with the lecturers.

Learning Outcomes: 

In this course, students will acquire knowledge about, and will reflect on:

  • theories in cognitive science deemed to be relevant to political science; these mainly include experimental work on biases in decision-making.
  • specific applications of policy-making informed by cognitive psychology/science, with an eventual focus on cooperative behaviour
  • whether exploiting the theories of cognitive 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.
  • 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 also discourage the use of power point.
  • Registered students must submit a final essay of no more than 2,000 words at the end of the term.


Grades will be awarded as follows:

  • Final essay 30% (The short essay—less than 2000 words—will either be an independent position paper, or a critical review of a relevant book, paper or set of papers. The subject should be decided as early as possible together with the me).
  • Presentation of a paper 20% (the presentation looks for an ability to verbally express and criticise arguments. It also focuses on the skills needed to explain general arguments in a crisp and succinct way).
  • Presentation of a nudge in the nudge fair 20% (The presented nudge should be thoroughly analysed: What are the psychological evidence that the nudge is needed? In what way would the presented nudge improve people’s life? Does it respect the nudgees? Does it go against their autonomy? What experiment (lab or field) would enable assessing the efficiency of the nudge?
  • Performance in the debate session 15%
  • Participation 15%


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