What is Behavioral in Policy Studies? How Far has the Discipline Moved Beyond Traditional Utilitarianism?

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Michael Howlett
Ching Leong


policy behavior, policy tools, policy design, nudges


The recent behavioral turn among economic, administrative and other scholars has resulted in a new way of thinking about policy sciences which emphasizes behavioural insights and the need for greater research into this facet of policy-making. While most early researchers had aspired to the hallmarks of social science, with theoretical modelling on the assumption of microeconomic utility, many now have come to accept that this kind of rationality may be in short supply in practice and that more study of norms, irrationalities and collective action is required. This new focus has led to a behavioural turn in policy theory and practice. Policy design, in particular, now addresses a much wider range of policy tools and is no longer as circumscribed by a priori adherence to utilitarian assumptions about policy behavior as it was in the past. At the same time however, this turn presents new challenges including the irreducibility of incentives for behavior to a single utilitarian currency. We argue that the policy sciences still need a more serious consideration of non-economic incentives, if they are to move away from the traditional utilitarianism which has coloured findings in the discipline for decades.

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