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Questions for Cass Sunstein: Can We “Nudge” to a Better Pandemic Policy?

He thinks behavioral science offers one solution to the pandemic.

Photo provided by the author.

For the past several weeks, Americans have been greeted daily with agonizing news about the coronavirus pandemic. Not simply from the anguish of the country’s spiraling cases and death tolls, but the incompetence of much of its political culture, too: Governors who flip-flop on mask-wearing, local officials who cave to pressure on public health measures, and a President who long ago stopped attending his pandemic meetings in favor of heaping abuse on his own public health agencies.

But some thinkers are exploring how the country could still craft an effective pandemic policy, even in the absence of a federal one. Cass Sunstein is one of those thinkers, a longtime professor at Harvard Law School who has written extensively on the exploding area of cognitive science known as behavioral economics, and its implications for government policy.

In 2008, Sunstein published the book “Nudge” along with co-author Richard Thaler, another leading scholar in behavioral economics. Together, Sunstein and Thaler envisioned a marriage of cognitive science and policy at various levels of American government that they dubbed “libertarian paternalism.” To take an example: If the cognitive bias toward “loss aversion” dictates that humans react less often to the prospect of reward than they do to the prospect of losing something they already have, such an insight could be applied to myriad aspects of policy—from “opt-out” schemes for organ donation at the DMV, to the Army’s interactions with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Fittingly, Sunstein ended up doing exactly that, serving in the Obama administration’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012, where he sought out creative applications of behavioral economics to the White House policy portfolio. Lately, Sunstein has been advising foreign governments and other organizations on their own behavioral framework for addressing the pandemic, too.

In an interview edited for length and clarity, Sunstein tells Washingtonian why pandemics are particularly suited to manipulating human biases, why New Zealand has tapped the cognitive power of fun, and what Texas might be able to teach the country after all.

Washingtonian: We’ve arrived at a moment when covid-19 is out of control. The feeling is basically national despair over what seems like a complete lack of strategy. But what’s struck me is how eerily similar this feels to an observation from Camus, who wrote that the main weakness a plague exploits is a lack of imagination. We hear a lot of technocratic anguish—governor so-and-so’s idiotic behavior on mask policy—but I don’t think we hear a lot of imagination right now.

Cass Sunstein: Put it this way, I guess. It’s a big world, and a number of countries have done well with the pandemic. New Zealand, Taiwan, Australia have all done well—Denmark and Germany have had considerable success. And so if you look globally, we’re doing less well than some countries which are in many ways similar to us—in many important ways different too. And the fact that we’re where we are is a result of policy failures, and not a result of anything inevitable.

In terms of policy problems that lend themselves to behavioral science and nudges—challenges of economics, or conducting war—where does a pandemic fall on the scale? Say, on a scale of one to ten. 

I’ve worked a lot on Covid-19, both in terms of public writing and in terms of talking to officials in various places. And there’s no question that human behavior is at the heart of it. Right around the corner from where we’re speaking, there are stores that have social distancing nudges—markers on the floor that say maintain six feet, and they’ve got precision about what six feet is. So the idea that behavior is at the heart of it is self-evident. So it would be a ten on the scale—as much as any problem that governments encounter as a behavioral problem.

In places where the pandemic is very severe, mandating mask wearing in certain places is a very thinkable option. But even when those things are done, to make the mandate effective, or to encourage behavior that isn’t mandated, a mandate would be best accompanied by nudges—which might be simple communications about what most people are doing.

What are the cognitive biases that matter most in a pandemic? You’ve written about “present bias,” for example.

Right. Present bias is where today and tomorrow matter, [but] next year not so much. I think that’s not the primary problem here.

What’s the primary problem?

It’s unrealistic optimism. So, 90 percent of drivers think they’re better than the average driver and less likely to be in a serious accident. One-hundred percent of people think their sense of humor is better than normal. [Laughs] People typically think they’re immune to risks that others are subject to, or relatively more immune. I worry that unrealistic optimism is problem number one for getting the death rate as low as we want it to be. 

Let’s talk about New Zealand, a country that has gotten its cases down to near-zero. You’ve argued that New Zealand’s success is explained by actions that go deeper than policy edicts alone.

In New Zealand, the watchword during Covid has been, “Be Kind.” Which is pretty good, to think of protecting others against the harm. So kindness—that’s potentially, let’s say, very effective.

You’ve also said that New Zealand made “fun” a part of its behavioral framework. How have they done that?

The [message from] Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been a sense that the country is going to get through it, and is going to laugh even as it deals with something that isn’t especially funny. But human beings need to laugh. It might be the absurdity of doing all your work from home. It might be the silliness of [how] we’re all wearing masks now. It might be the question of Santa Claus—is he going to be able to come to Christmas, or is he going to get Covid? Not the funniest thing imaginable, but it’s something that people can laugh about.

And of course a pandemic is very serious. But one behavioral finding is that often people are more likely to change their behavior if they consider it something that is consistent with hope and optimism—a smile, rather than cowering in terror. And New Zealand has been smart about that. If you look at the communications coming out of there, the signage and information disclosures, they don’t have grimness in the them. They have a kind of lightness in them. And New Zealand is a place where nudging and behavioral economics are very well known, it’s part of their government. Clearly what they’ve done is informed by a good working understand of behavioral science.

So Ardern, who in many ways is a model of a leader under crisis, said [the government] considered both the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny to be essential workers, in an otherwise very serious report to at a news conference. And she said with a degree of gravity to the children of New Zealand that if the Easter Bunny doesn’t make it to your household, then please understand it might be difficult at the moment for the bunny to get everywhere. And if you’re locked down and your leader is talking in those terms, then you feel, ‘This is gonna be fine. Okay, I’m going to stay at home.’ Rather than thinking, ‘She’s against me,’ or, ‘We’re doomed.’

That kind of ‘fun’ only emerges from a sound policy architecture, of course. Are those in tension? If governments want people to be cheery, they’ll have to promote cheer without stoking the ‘unrealistic optimism’ bias, right?

This is one of the amazing things about the human mind—you can be smiling while you are taking steps that protect your family. So people can stay home, and have a great time as a family. I go out with my daughter to CVS most days. She’s eight years old, and we have a great time. And we’re wearing masks the whole time. So it’s not as if we’re not keenly alert to the fact that there’s a pandemic. But we have such fun, and it’s almost every day…

In Taiwan, there’s been an explicit reference to “fun” from the highest level officials. After I [helped work on their framework,] I discovered that high level officials actually speak publicly about fun, as a way of making people smile and laugh a little bit while they’re dealing with things. Through humor, through a sense that you can have a mask, or an app, that has some charm in it.

Taiwan, of course, they have a distinctive culture. But they’ve had a kind of a wit, and a sense of [what they call] “Humor over Rumor.” Audrey Tang [a minister in the government] emphasizes fun. I don’t know whether she’s a student of behavioral science, but I can say that I’ve been to Taiwan and talked to the nation’s leaders, who are extremely smart. So it may be that they have some expertise.  

You’ve also written about “identity” as a key ingredient for nudging behavior. Talk about the story of Texas, which had an environmental campaign, and what it can teach other states.

This is from the 1980s, where in Texas, there was grave concern about littering on the streets. And the question [was] what do you do. And if in a state like Texas—people who love freedom and love their state, and don’t like elites ordering them around—you’re told, “Litterbug, litterbug, shame on you!” you might think, ‘Yeah, right.’ It might be even counterproductive—I’m going to throw the plastic out of the window, just because they said that.

And instead, the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign [which was invented as an anti-littering slogan] was a way of linking people’s pride and identity with not littering. Meaning, you’re messing with Texas if you throw stuff out! And that has been successful—not perfectly successful, but it’s made things a lot better than they otherwise would be. And it has been accompanied by trusted people like Willie Nelson, as part of the Don’t Mess With Texas campaign. And that’s smart. You could easily imagine stuff like that on Covid-19. This is not a simple problem. But it is something on which some places in the world have done really well. And some places in our own country have done at least well. And there’s no reason that [other] places can’t use the same strategies that have been useful elsewhere.

Have there been cases studies like that during the pandemic?

In Montana, there’s a recent effort to connect precautionary steps with one’s identity as a citizen of Montana: “Montanans Do This.” And that’s behaviorally smart. It’s like the Texas program. And so behavioral science has many faces, one of which is clear information, one of which is reminders, one of which is warnings, one of which is social norms, another of which is making things simple, another of which is connecting with people’s identity. I would think that in Texas, where the pandemic is not going well these days, to use the “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign directly as a way of attacking Covid-19 is thinkable.

An image from Montana’s ongoing public campaign during the pandemic.

There’s some controversial data that leads some to argue that during the Battle of Britain, Hitler’s bombing campaign had the opposite of its intended effect—because Londoners who saw their neighbor’s house reduced to rubble actually felt more impervious to threat as a result. Do you think that’s part of what’s going on here, when we see photos of overcrowded beaches and such in the midst of the reopening? 

I’d be very careful about that. I wouldn’t want to generalize that if someone near you dies, you feel impervious—it’s more likely to run exactly the opposite way. The availability heuristic suggests that risk judgements are affected by what readily comes to mind. So if you’re in a neighborhood and someone gets burgled, your sense of imperviousness will not increase, on average—you’re likely to feel you’re going to get burgled. 

With respect to some of the crowding, let’s say, there is a well-established phenomenon called reactance. Reactance is a behavioral phenomenon where people are told not to do something, and sometimes they’ll do it because they’ve told been told not to do it. They’re mad, they feel their agency has been taken away. And so for leaders who are either encouraging certain behaviors, or mandating certain behaviors, to be alert to the risk of reactance is a good idea.  

Where else have you seen behavioral nudges at work? 

In the United Kingdom, the EAST framework—Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely—every one of those letters you can see in a grocery store, for example, which puts right there, “Wear a mask,” or “Not allowed without a mask,” and has repeated social distancing reminders. The Behavioural Insights Team in the UK is doing a lot of work in trying to figure out what works. So they are studying intensely what’s the most effective way to get people to wear a mask or to engage in social distancing, to wash your hands. They’re doing empirical work…in 31 countries, last I checked. So what I’ve been describing are things that behavioral science predicts would be successful. But they’re actually testing what’s the most successful [in the pandemic].  

Are there uses for this approach in the coming months ahead? What about reopening college campuses and schools, which has a lot of people feeling anxious?

I suspect we’ll see a lot of creativity with apps both for educational institutions and large employers, apps that will allow disclosures of various kinds, like: ‘Are you healthy today?’ ‘When were you tested?’ ‘Have you been in contact with anyone sick?’ And of course, there are privacy issues there. And then that’s going to be challenging.

What about for parents? Suppose that in September, policymakers start urging parents to avoid playdates. You’ll have parents desperate to get their kids out of the house, and trapped in a scenario where a lot hinges on mutual accountability between parents, along with a lot of temptation to break the rules.

For diminishing playdates? There’s some preliminary data suggesting that if you want people to engage in healthy behavior, it’s more effective to tell them they need to do that so that they don’t make other people sick, than to do it to ensure they themselves don’t get sick. It’s really interesting data. It suggests that people don’t want to endanger or kill others. That gets their juices flowing. They also don’t want themselves to get sick, of course, but it’s even more effective to do that. So to clarify to parents, ‘If they do X, [and] X is a risky thing to do, they are threatening their son’s grandmothers life.’ And saying it in a way that doesn’t have excessive sternness. But instead, something that says, “Please, be kind.”

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Benjamin Wofford
Staff Writer

Benjamin Wofford is a staff writer at Washingtonian.