Move Over Economists: We Need a Council of Psychological Advisers

Image of an engraving from Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica.

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

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

By Barry Schwartz
The Atlantic
November 12, 2012

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. …

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. … 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. … Full story