Right-wing media have baselessly smeared the White House's new Behavioral Insights Team, labeling it "propaganda," "mind control," and "Orwellian." In reality, the Behavioral Insights Team is modeled off a similar unit in Britain that has proven effective in encouraging timely tax payment and reducing energy bills and consumption.
Conservative media seized on White House plans to create a Behavioral Insights Team on July 30, when FoxNews.com obtained a document describing the program and its search for behavioral scientists.
Breitbart.com quickly jumped on the story, suggesting that the Obama administration will use the program to push a social agenda: "The Obama administration has not been shy about attempting to use its influence - or taxpayer money - to push enthusiasm for its agenda, including Obamacare, nutrition, and gay rights."
Fox stoked fears by hyping the program on multiple shows with little mention of its benefits. On the July 30 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs commented on FoxNews.com's report on the program, saying, "To many, that sounds purely like propaganda and mind control."
On July 31, Fox & Friends co-hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade implied that the Behavioral Insights Team, described onscreen as the "Nudge Squad," would lead to government coercion of citizens:
DOOCY: The problem as well is sometimes a nudge can lead to a shove, so you just don't want to overdo it.
KILMEADE: Right. Nudge, push, shove, poke, we don't know. Here's the thing --
DOOCY: I don't want anybody poking me.
America Live host Shannon Bream later described the program as "raising serious concerns about Big Brother," and Fox News contributor Monica Crowley fear mongered that the program "has an Orwellian ring to it."
Contrary to right-wing media claims, the goals of the Behavioral Insights Team are far from "mind control." Rather, the program is modeled off its British counterpart, which has utilized behavioral psychology to target fraud, error, and debt, and to reduce energy costs and consumption.
The document cited by Fox News states that using behavioral insights to inform policy can "help design public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals," and cites the British Behavioural Insights Team commissioned under David Cameron as a money-saving model:
A growing body of evidence suggests that insights from the social and behavioral sciences can be used to help design public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals. The practice of using behavioral insights to inform policy has seen success overseas. In 2010, UK Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned the Behavioural Insights Team, which through a process of rapid, iterative experimentation ("Test, Learn, Adapt"), has successfully identified and tested interventions that will further advance priorities of the British government, while saving the government at least £1 billion within the next five years (see previous Annual Reports 2010-11 and 2011-12).
The British Behavioural Insights Team found through experimentation that utilizing behavioral insights to shape policy is highly effective. The Guardian wrote of the approach: "It is politics done like science, effectively ... and, in many cases, it appears to work."
Subtle psychological "nudges" are particularly effective in encouraging people to pay their taxes on time. Writing in The New York Times, economist Richard Thaler described the program's income tax experiment, which found that changing the wording of late tax reminder letters increased repayment rates by fifteen percent:
Letters using various messages were sent to 140,000 taxpayers in a randomized trial. As the theory predicted, referring to the social norm of a particular area (perhaps, "9 out of 10 people in Exeter pay their taxes on time") gave the best results: a 15-percentage-point increase in the number of people who paid before the six-week deadline, compared with results from the old-style letter, which was used as a control condition.
The British tax authorities estimate that this initiative, if rolled out across the country, could generate £30 million of extra revenue annually, according to Thaler. Another trial that sought to reduce energy waste was similarly effective, offering individuals subsidized loft clearance to encourage them to insulate their homes and reduce their energy bills and consumption.