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Obama Seeks Psychological Help With Climate Change

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Evan Lehmann, Scientific American

President Obama is seeking psychological advice about climate change.

Yesterday, he issued an executive order instructing federal agencies to use behavioral science when developing programs to address rising temperatures and other policies. That’s the stuff of sociologists, psychologists and behavioral economists.

The administration suggests that behavioral cues, like comparing your energy use with a neighbor, can be used to increase participation in energy efficiency and other federal goals. The White House created a group last year to experiment with strategies to change behavior. It’s called the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, and it’s testing methods that might get people to act differently.

One is a pop-up computer window that urges people to save paper by printing on both sides. The experiment resulted in a 5.8 percent increase in double-sided printing, a potentially significant reduction in the 18 billion pages printed annually by federal workers.

Other efforts failed. An experiment based on research showing that some people will reduce their energy use after seeing that their neighbors use less sought to persuade prescription drug providers to lower their use of addictive opioids. The team sent letters to providers with high-billing patterns showing that their counterparts were distributing lower amounts of the drugs. But the “intervention had no measurable impact,” the White House said in a report released yesterday.

Another experiment used text messages to remind high school graduates to attend college. “Summer melt” is a phenomenon in which up to 30 percent of urban kids accepted to college don’t show up for school.

The team also sent “behaviorally designed letters” to people who might miss the deadline to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“By improving the effectiveness and efficiency of Government, behavioral science insights can support a range of national priorities,” the executive order says, “including helping workers to find better jobs; enabling Americans to lead longer, healthier lives; improving access to educational opportunities and support for success in school; and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

People aren’t ‘perfectly rational’

Some experts applauded yesterday’s unusual move as a signal that the administration is trying to simplify federal programs. It also marks a move away from economic policies that “nudge” people into a form of behavior preferred by the government, like a gas tax that supposedly could reduce driving by raising the cost.

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