I was invited by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) to speak about cultural behavioral science and its applications in public policy. I explain how, by using cultural evolution as a theory of human behavior can help some of the challenges in behavioral science in terms of long term change and contextual factors that affect whether an intervention will work. This figure from a key paper presents the history of behavioral science that has led to cultural evolutionary behavioral science as an obvious next step.
The most relevant papers are:
Muthukrishna, M. (2019). Cultural Evolutionary Public Policy. Nature Human Behaviour, 4, 12-13. [Download] [Publisher]
Schimmelpfennig, R. & Muthukrishna, M. (2023). Cultural Evolutionary Behavioural Science in Public Policy. Behavioural Public Policy. [Publisher] [Download] [Twitter] [LinkedIn]
My talk begins with an overview of the problem plaguing behavioral economics – the lack of a theoretical foundation that can guide policy interventions. I introduce cultural evolution as a possible solution to bridge the theoretical gap. By using cultural evolution as a theory of human behavior, improvements can be made in policy efficiency. For example, studying how social norms change and evolve over time will provide a foundation for implementing effective policy interventions in multicultural societies. Some of this history is captured in this figure from the paper:
Considering the historical path dependence of norms provides crucial in understanding why certain populations hold certain beliefs, like vaccine hesitancy and a distrust in healthcare systems. Identifying how people acquire cultural norms, and narrowing down the ultimate causes for behavior (through cultural distance tools like world.culturalytics.com) could provide insights into designing interventions that work.
Understanding cultural evolution and behavioral science can help reanalyze the literature on public policy, providing insights into why some approaches are successful while others are not. I explain how studying universal cognitive capabilities will provide a deeper understanding of norm change, and thus, improve policy design.
I was a panelist at the Behavioral Science for Global Good at Behavioral Insights Group (BIG) conference hosted by Harvard Business School (add link) / Harvard Kennedy School (add link). The goal of the panel was to offer insight into the ways in which behavioral science may need to change in the future in order to fulfill its stated mission to make a positive difference in the world—particularly on how to expand our focus beyond predominantly WEIRD researchers, WEIRD research topics, and WEIRD populations.
My fellow panelists included:
Dolly Chugh, Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at NYU
Chaning Jang, CSO / VP of Research at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics
Shinobu Kitayama, Robert B. Zajonc Collegiate Professor of Psychology at University of Michigan
Steven Roberts, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University
Neela Saldanha, Senior Advisor at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics – who did a wonderful job chairing the discussion.