Memo to the President…

How can psychology influence policy? Ella Rhodes reports on a special issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Could the US government ever create a Council of Psychological Science Advisers feeding findings directly into policy? For a special issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Psychologists were asked to take on the imaginary role of members of this council who had the chance to write memos for the President on a range of societal issues.

This resulted in a wave of over 200 submissions, and each of the eventual memos takes a societal issue and uses evidence from psychological science to tackle it. Commentaries were provided by David Halpern, Head of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, and Cass Sunstein (Harvard University), who advocated for the role of a psychological science in government during his role as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.  

The memos cover areas ranging from health and education to problems with immorality and policy making itself. We have compiled a summary of the articles but all can be read, open access.

How could psychological science be used in one of the most long-standing problems in America – getting the nation to make healthy changes and stick to them? Alexander Rothman (University of Minnesota) and his colleagues outlined policies aimed at tackling barriers such as lack of motivation, failure to translate intention into action, prior unhealthy habits slowing down change and the difficulty of maintaining new healthy habits. The authors pointed to evidence that has shown thinking of the consequences of behaviour on other people can motivate individuals to change certain behaviours.

Traci Mann (University of Minnesota) tackled misconceptions about obesity that have fed into policy: beliefs that restrictive diets help weight loss, that stigmatising obesity will help people shed weight and that weight and physical health should be considered one and the same. They suggested policy should use environmental changes that reduce the need for individual willpower and promote health over lower weight.

Using recent evidence on the brain development of teenagers, Laurence Steinberg (Temple University) gave evidence of how current programmes aimed at tackling teen risky behaviour
fail to consider how adolescents’ brains develop. Using examples of unwanted teen pregnancies, marijuana use and smoking, Steinberg pointed out that many risky behaviours among teens have not fallen significantly in recent years. However, when risk taking is hardwired into the adolescent brain, how could the government use psychology to tackle risky behaviours? Steinberg suggested two approaches, the first aimed at positive youth development and the second at limiting opportunities for young people to partake in some behaviours that could end up hurting them or other people; for example by increasing condom availability and changing driving licence laws to ensure the youngest drivers can only drive when supervised.

A fascinating idea for encouraging healthy cognitive ageing was presented by Michael Ross (University of Waterloo) and Emily Schryer (California State University). They wrote that although much policy focus has been placed on health and social care for older people, the cognitive decline seen in older age, particularly regarding memory, could also be considered in policy. The authors suggest many older people believe memory loss to be an inevitable symptom of age despite the fact exercise, using memory aids and even addressing hearing problems can improve the picture. They then focused on evidence-based changes that could be made to the environment that would help older people live with memory decline. Some of their suggestions include the use of apps to remind older people to take medication and making cars more easy to locate in car parks by using numbered bays or painting parts of it in different colours.

Aneeta Rattan (London Business School), Krishna Savani (Nanyang Business School), Dolly Chugh (New York University) and Carol Dweck (Stanford University) outlined plans for tackling race, gender and social class gaps in educational achievement. They suggested policy makers should focus on children’s academic mindsets – particularly encouraging the belief that intelligence is not fixed and can change and grow over time, and encouraging students to feel they belong in a certain school or within certain subjects. The authors wrote that encouraging these ‘growth’ and ‘belonging’ mindsets can be achieved through training and encouraging a school environment that is non-stereotypical in its approach to students. They outlined evidence of mindset changes having noticeable effects on grades and closing gender, social and race gaps, and suggested the Department of Education should identify mindsets as a major issue in US education.

The gap in educational achievement between higher-income and lower-income families could be made smaller by encouraging useful early parent–child interactions before children get to school – this is the argument put forward by Erin Maloney (University of Chicago) and her colleagues. The authors suggest ways in which existing policy can be adapted to give all children the best start in education. The Head Start programme is aimed at disadvantaged preschool kids, and the authors suggest that by giving parents models of good early interactions, encouraging learning goals and increasing caregivers’ motivation and self-efficacy, these children may fare better when they make it to the classroom.

When billions of dollars are lost in the US every year through unethical behaviours, including $1 trillion paid in bribes and $270 billion due to unreported income, how can psychologists tackle unethical behaviour? Shahar Ayal (Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya) and colleagues suggested the REVISE framework to guide policy interventions for tackling this. The framework uses three principles, reminding, visibility and self-engagement. They point to evidence that people take advantage of grey areas to justify dishonest behaviour, thus the first principle of ‘reminding’ would involve reducing all ambiguity in situations and making people’s own moral standards more salient. The second principle, ‘visibility’ is based on findings that anonymity can reduce moral behaviour, thus making social monitoring cues more visible may make ethical behaviour more likely. Finally, people are able to view themselves as moral but act immorally, the ‘self-engagement’ part of the framework would involve forming a concrete link between peoples’ moral transgressions and perceptions of their own morality through reminders.

Adam Galinsky (Colombia Business School, Columbia University) and colleagues point out the many societal and individual benefits of diversity and the many barriers preventing it in some places. They point to evidence that diverse groups are more innovative in their thinking, diverse juries consider more perspectives, and on a larger scale diversity offers economic benefits. Individual diversity, achieved when a person has a broad range of experiences such as travelling abroad, is related to higher levels of creativity and entrepreneurial activity. They suggest policies to incentivise companies to diversify their recruitment practices and suppliers. To encourage individual diverse experiences they suggest creating fellowships for study or internships in other countries. To minimise the possible detrimental effects of diversity, such as conflict, the authors propose all policies should include both majority and minority group members.

In one of the final articles Sander van der Linden (Princeton University), Edward Maibach (George Mason University) and Anthony Leiserowitz, tackle one of the toughest challenge facing policy makers – how to make people engage with climate change prevention. They set out five guidelines for improving policy and decision making around climate change. These include reference to the fact that climate change information is often presented in an abstract or analytical way that assumes humans process this information in a logical, analytical way, when evidence has shown this is not the case. They suggested information about climate change should be translated into relateable and concrete personal experiences. They also point to evidence that humans tend to discount uncertain, future events when making decisions and discount risks of climate change because it is spatially and temporally distant. Policymakers, they write, should highlight the fact the climate change effects are already being seen.

Other highlights from the special issue included Hal Hershfield (University of California) and colleagues’ work on consumer debt and how the government can help people use credit more responsibly and keep repaying their debts in mind. Mandeep Dhami (Middlesex University) and colleagues wrote about the role of intelligence analysis in policy decision making, and how psychological science can improve it. Christopher Barnes (University of Washington) and Christopher Drake (Henry Ford Hospital) provided an interesting look at a potential ‘sleep crisis’ in the USA and its implications on public health. They suggest simple policy changes, including changing school start times for adolescents, the abolition of daylight saving time, and providing more information to the public on the importance of sleep.

The Psychologist will soon feature an article exploring the impacts of psychology both within the media and on policy and will ask – is psychology punching its weight? 

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