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Obama Changing Americans' Behavior With Science

Obama's Changing Americans' Behavior With Science

Remember hearing "record turnout is expected" before last year's election? Time reports it was the work of 29 of the world's most influential behavioral scientists, psychologists, and economists. They knew people are more likely to do something if they think others will do it. Like vote!

Now the president is using the team to put policies in place and funnel stimulus money into programs that will help America help itself. How so?

  1. It's easier to say yes than no: Excited for the automatic-enrollment pension plans? I'm sure. Well, it's because the government doesn't want to pay our assisted-living rent when we're 90. A 2001 study showed only 36 percent joined 401(k) plans when they had to opt in, but 86 percent stayed in when they were automatically signed up.
  2. You'll spend the extra cash in your next paycheck: Beginning this month, $116 billion worth of payroll tax cuts, compliments of the stimulus package, will roll their way into paychecks. Why the paltry change when Obama could have given out $600 checks like Bush? Not because it didn't work, though true, but because Obama knows why it didn't work: people spend when they get a few extra dollars and save lump sums.

To see the other two,


  1. Knowledge is powerful: Might as well just turn the heat down now. Pretty soon smart meters will tick away, telling us how deep our carbon footprints are on the future's sandless shores.
  2. Because we would jump off the bridge: Peer pressure works. It got AIG executives to give up bonuses, and now it's going to persuade Americans to stay in automatic pension plans and live on less energy. Why? Because people will assume it's what they're supposed to do and that everybody else is doing it.

And that's really what it's about — creating new social norms, the change of all changers. Financial responsibility, healthier lifestyles, and everyday environmentalism will ultimately lighten America's burden of itself. Do we need subtle nudges from the government? Or is it too creepy and sinister for you?


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