PCAST Learns About Recent Advances in the Behavioral and Social Sciences

 The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) convened on September 8th to hear from behavioral and social scientists about applications of their research to public policy. The three speakers, Katy Milkman Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, Raj Chetty Ph.D., Harvard University, and Josh Tucker Ph.D., New York University, presented compelling research. (View the agenda here and watch the video recording here).  

Katy Milkman, former FABBS council member, described behavioral insights as changes to psychological rather than economic consequences, and how they can address public policy challenges. For example, individuals who receive reminder texts from their pharmacy are more likely to get their vaccine than individuals who don’t receive texts. Behavioral interventions address typical human traits such as impatience, forgetfulness, and the need for belonging.  

Milkman noted that many governments already operate behavioral insight units to promote their policy goals. She further explained that although the effects of these units’ interventions are relatively small, their use in promoting policy change is very cost effective. Milkman’s research displayed that behavioral “nudges” (like the above pharmacy text reminders) produced the most cost effective intervention in areas such as retirement savings, college enrollment, and vaccinations.  

Council member Steve Pacala asked each presenter where in the federal government has the message of their findings been embraced and which agencies or groups are investing effort and money into such policies. Milkman stated that the Obama administration created the Social and Behavioral Science Team which was later transformed into the Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES). OES continues to explore effective science communication methods. 

Raj Chetty’s presentation focused on three policy approaches to increasing income and social mobility. These included reducing segregation, making place-based investments, and improving higher education. Chetty explained how factors such as social capital, connections, access to high quality education, and the degree of income inequality in the area you grow up in are all drivers of economic growth and should be examined when assessing income mobility across the United States. 

The Council also heard from Josh Tucker on social media and politics. His presentation focused on how social media use impacts an individual’s views on topics such as political polarization, political participation, confidence in democratic institutions, and more. “What we think we know is not always the case,” Tucker stated as he cited research findings that challenged conventional wisdom. One example, the presupposition that the YouTube algorithm drives viewers to political extremism by funneling extremist content (sending viewers in a “rabbit hole”), was found not to be the case in the research findings. He noted that research on social media still remains to be difficult due to the data being inaccessible by privatized companies that manage the social media platforms. 

FABBS appreciated the high level of interest and engagement among PCAST members. 

PCAST, White House