National differences in acceptance levels of benevolent paternalism

Politicians have taken to insights from behavioral economics pretty quick. This has been a direct result of one of the key implications of the economic approach to understanding human behaviour, even in its canonical form. According to the standard rational choice approach, there are two key determinants of individual choice. On the one hand, there is a set of options, and on the other there is a preference weighting over those options. The options form a constrained subset of feasible options among a wider more encompassing set of all conceivable options. The constraints arise out of budget, cognitive or otherwise informational, and feasibility restrictions. Even in the standard approach thus, it is clear that choice can be influenced both on the side of preferences, and on the side of constraints. What the behavioural perspective is adding to this is a pychological, sociological and institutional grounding of both the preference and the constraint side. Choice architectures are basically those features of a decision situation that are structural in the sense that they shape either preferences or constraints (or both) in a way that is receptive to marginal intervention. Hence the possibility of prescriptive accounts of the purposeful redesign of choice architectures, with their partly controversial political implications.

Bobby Duffy, Head of Social Research at Ipsos MORI UK, has now presented evidence in a recent piece in the New Statesman according to which the relative acceptance of benevolent paternalism as a policy tool various considerably between different countries. And there is an inherent tension between our general acceptance of the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ choices, and our reluctance, broadly speaking, to allow government to engineer choice architectures such that those ‘good’ choices prevail.


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