Can psychology influence the public sphere?

¿Puede la psicología influir en la vida pública?


Psicólogo Interno Residente. Hospital Gregorio Marañón, Madrid


Alejandro Muriel Hermosilla







          This article aims to show some of the forms in which psychology can foster the implementation of policies that affect the well-being of citizens, such as public health or economy, as well as other relevant issues as the attitude towards migrants’ integration. A brief review of the historical antecedents, contributions and the future of psychology on this matter are performed.

          Keywords: Psychology. Libertarian paternalism. Public policy.



          Este artículo pretende mostrar algunas de las formas en que desde la psicología se puede colaborar en el desarrollo de políticas que afectan directamente al bienestar de los ciudadanos, como la sanidad o la economía, así como en otras cuestiones de importancia como la actitud ante la integración de la inmigración. Se realiza un breve repaso de los antecedentes históricos, contribuciones y futuro de la psicología en esta materia.

          Palabras clave: Psicología. Paternalismo liberal. Políticas públicas.


Reception: 02/24/2016 - Acceptance: 04/05/2016


EFDeportes.com, Revista Digital. Buenos Aires, Año 21, Nº 215, Abril de 2016. http://www.efdeportes.com/

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    With knowledge of the dynamics of Psychology and the Public Sphere under the framework of libertarian paternalism, public policies in domains such as health, economics or immigration can be improved taking into account a psychological approach. Firstly, in order to fully understand this issue, the public policy concept and its evolution will be explained. Subsequently, it will be discussed whether psychology should influence public policy or not and under which circumstances. Finally, considering the latest research it will be argued how psychology can lead to better public policies in the abovementioned domains.

    Turning firstly to the concept of “public policy”, several attempts to define it have been done since it was first coined. It can be generally defined as “course of action or inaction taken by governmental entities with regard to a particular issue or set of issues”. Other scholars define it as “system of courses of action, regulatory measures, laws, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives “(Nolfi, 2008). In sum, it can be stated that a public policy is the state’s decision making about socially problematic issues and it is something that improves government proceedings. Therefore, a public policy involve some decisions, such as whether a problem exists or not, whether to act or not and how to tackle the problem (Subirats, 1989).

    During 40’s-50’s war time, psychologist, anthropologists and political scientist analyzed information management, opinion formation and leadership. This information was used for propaganda and for political persuasion. Within this context where scientist’s research influenced policy decisions, Harold Lasswell published “Policy Orientation” in Policy Sciences in 1951. This is considered one of the first articles about public policy. Yet, until 70’s public policy did not attract much attention (Reyes, 2009).

Psychology and public policy

    Now that the concept of public policy and the context where it emerged have been established, the question “should psychology influence public policy?” can be discussed. However, this question raises other issues such as: is changing public policy a role of psychology? Are psychologists qualified to formulate a public policy? Is it acceptable to influence people’s behaviour using public policy? And what is the ultimate purpose of a public policy?

    Although the last decades’ research on psychology have focused on inner psychological processes and brain study, psychology has been largely defined as the science of behaviour and its aim is to describe what people do (Baumeister, 2007). It can be claimed that public policy is ultimately referred to the regulation of people’s behaviour in different situations. Thus, for example, when a person decides whether to attend to a psychologist or not, there are psychological factors that determine his decision, such as attitudes, cognition, motivation, etc. These factors can be mediated by policies that can make the behaviour more or less likely to occur. In this case, psycho-educational approach policies for the community that highlight the benefits of treatment could encourage people from using mental health services (Henshaw, 2009).

    Since psychology is the science of behaviour and policies regulate people’s behaviour in different situations; this discipline can make an important contribution to the formulation of efficient policies. However, in this context, the term efficient becomes controversial. Is the policy efficient if a company manages to have their employees under control or it is more efficient in a society that seeks general welfare? Historically, social psychology’s research has been used by companies and governments to increase their control or to persuade people. Thus, social psychology has been considered as a tool of control and has been referred to as conservative by critics and intellectuals (Romero, 2008). Nevertheless, the psychological approach suggested here tries to move people in directions that will make their lives better without limiting the freedom of choice. This is the principle of the libertarian paternalism framework (Thaler, 2009). Yet, even if policy can influence people in a positive way, is it acceptable to manipulate people’s decisions in any way?

    It is claimed that the ultimate idea of libertarian paternalism is to help people make better decisions (Thaler, 2009). However, is it always possible to know what the best decision is? In order to clarify this point, some ideas need to be explained. Normally, when the term “better” is used in this context, it refers to ideas such as healthier, more productive, more tolerant, etc. Hence, the term “better” refers to socially positive values or behaviours. For instance, if the reformulation of a policy will lead to healthier behaviours, it is regarded as positive and the reformulation is supported.

    Some problems about general benefits and its limitations will be illustrated with the following example. It has been proven that the position where the food is displayed in a buffet affect the likelihood of choice. Thus, if we want to promote healthy food, junk food can be displayed in a position that is less likely to be chosen. However, if a person who suffer food allergy goes to the buffet, which would be the healthier option? In this situation the decision is problematic and would lead to the creation of different buffets according to individual’s characteristics. Although these contributions may not suit everyone, they actually work quite well for the vast majority.

    People who favour freedom of choice reject libertarian paternalism but often base their arguments on a false assumption and two misconceptions (Thaler, 2009). The false assumption is that people always make their best choices. This may be true if people choose something in a context in which they have experience but not in a context in which they are inexperienced or poorly informed. For example, a person might benefit from help when given a choice between fifty prescription drug plans with multiple features and variations. The first misconception is that it is possible to avoid influencing people’s choice. It is proven that in many situations organizations have to make a choice that will affect people’s behaviour. Thus, it would be better to influence in a positive way rather than in a negative way. The second misconception is that paternalism always involves coercion. The truth is that freedom of choice is preserved; libertarian paternalism tries to move people to a good direction although people are still free to choose (Thaler, 2009).

    These ideas will be clarified with the following example. Imagine that every year a person has to revise the choices of his retirement plan and pick a new option. If the person forgets to make a choice, what should be the default option? Suppose there are two alternatives: making the same choice he made last year or setting it back to zero. From a libertarian paternalism point of view, it is clearly better to automatically select the first option; otherwise the person would lose the money he has contributed to his retirement plan (Thaler, 2009).

    Therefore, it can be claimed that the role of psychology is to study the psychological factors involved in a situation regulated by a policy in order to have public policies that work better with people’s psychological characteristics.

    Thus, the action schema that psychology has would be: identify an anomaly in a model or a public policy, create an alternative to the anomaly based on a psychological theory and, finally, create a model using the assumptions of the second stage (Camerer, 2003). However, is the current psychology prepared to promote all this changes? Firstly, during college studies psychologist are not taught about public policy nor how to formulate a policy (Londoño et al., 2006). Moreover the investigation necessary to influence public policy has to be different from the current tendency. The stimuli used in research should represent the richness of the environment they try to represent; hence, ecologically valid stimuli are needed. Moreover, the research must have high validity, liability and replicability so that it becomes useful and representative in the real world (Amir et als., 2005). Hence, in order to achieve it, longitudinal studies, new qualitative methods such as Delphi (Iqbal and Pipon-Young, 2009; Landeta, 2006), daily methods such as the “Daily reconstruction method” (Kahneman et als, 2006) and ecologically valid experimental research (Amir et als, 2005) are encouraged.

Applying psychology to the public sphere

    After explaining the basic concepts, the theoretical framework and the research conditions that would lead to a psychology which can influence public policy, fruitful domains will be discussed.

    Psychology can influence public policy in two ways: directly and indirectly. In the case of the indirect process, psychology can help encourage people to get involved in decisions that will lead to the formulation of a public policy. Thus, psychological intervention in communities may promote a critical attitude towards policies with campaigns that persuade people of the importance of their role (Romero, 2008). Moreover, psychology can design public debates where people can discuss political issues and where citizen’s juries can take place (Lenaghan et als., 1996). Thus, frequent problems such as the effect of polarisation, confidence problems, lack of information, option’s display bias and impartiality could be solved. For instance, using a deliberative poll design that involves mixing people with experts and debating about issues relevant to the policy discussed solved the abovementioned difficulties (Rosier, 2005). This reveals how psychology can create the appropriate atmosphere to influence the formulation of public policies.

    Conversely, psychology can also take a direct approach to influence public policies in certain domains. One of the most popular domains is economics, where the ultimate goal of psychology is to improve economics and people’s interaction within this world (Amir et als., 2005). When economy was first identified as a particular field of study, psychology did not exist. However, economists such as Adam Smith or Francis Edge wrote about psychological topics. Considering that during the first part of the 20th century psychology was not considered as a science, economists built their own theory of economic behaviour. Later, some economic models started showing flaws that could be solved taking into account some psychological theories (Amir et als., 2005). The psychological approach to the study of people’s behaviour in the financial world challenges the economic assumption that people are always rational, but instead psychology helps them with decision making (Camerer, 2003). To aid in this task psychologists consider the psychological factors that determine people’s relation with the financial world: heuristics, procrastination, money illusion, recall problems, etc. (Thaler, 2004). Some examples may help to illustrate the abovementioned ideas. For instance, it is a proven fact that framing affected the money spent after 2002 tax return in the US. Since it was framed as “rebate” rather than, for example, as a “bonus”, people spent less money. The framing effect can be applied to medicare options, voting, etc. (Amir et als., 2005). Furthermore, the choice set affects the final choice, thus it can make people feel that they are not paying much taxes. Using this technique people can be encouraged to enrol in a health plan or give money to charity (Amir et als., 2005). One of the most popular implementations of psychological principles in the financial world is the “SMART plan” (Thaler and Benartzi, 2004). These authors used behavioural principles to design a plan to increase saving rates of the retirement plan. They took into account aspects such as procrastination, money illusion, inertia, information about the retirement options and self-control to create the “SMART plan”, which was implemented in three companies with great success.

    Immigration is a fruitful domain for psychology to influence public policies. In this context, psychology studies the psychological factors that determine tolerance and intolerance in order to promote the formulation of integration policies. People’s attitude is one of the several problems that immigrants face in their new country of residence (Romero, 2008). As a result, assimilation is often the attitude displayed by host citizens; it can be described as the belief that immigrants should change their customs and traditions for those representatives of the host country. This attitude involves a rejection of other cultures, although sometimes is displayed in subtle ways. Psychology supports integration, a receptive attitude that means a mutual learning between citizens from different cultures. The countries’ attitudes towards immigrants can be determined by looking at the immigration policies and the requirements to obtain the citizenship. Thus, countries like France or United Kingdom display an assimilation attitude whereas Canada’s integration attitude is widely recognized (Romero, 2008). The research carried out by Ivarsflaten in Western Europe constitutes an example that illustrates how psychology can tackle an attitudinal problem (Ivarsflaten, 2005). Usually, economic factors are regarded as the cause of the discrimination to immigrants. However, it was found that, in order to preserve the national uniqueness, restrictive immigration and asylum policies were formulated. As a consequence, they believe that the diversity of language, religion and traditions threaten their national unity. Moreover, this research shows that highly visible anti-immigrant elites mobilize support for restrictive immigration and asylum policies (Ivarsflaten, 2005). It can be inferred that effective policies that deal with the problem can be formulated after analyzing psychological factors involved in the problematic issue.

    Health is also a field where psychology can influence public policy, formulating useful alternatives. Under the framework of health promotion, social and psychological factors involved in people’s health are considered to improve current health policies (Londoño et als, 2006). During the last few decades models that explain the causes underlying healthy behaviours and health service utilization such as HBM (Health Belief Model) or TPB (Theory of Planned Behaviour) have been suggested (Henshaw, 2009). Findings in this domain reveal, for example, that unhealthy food advertising cause weight gain in children to the extent that 1 in 7 and up to 1 in 3 children might not have been obese in the absence of these advertisements (Lennert et als, 2009). Furthermore, it has been found that sickness-related absence from the workplace is linked to people who rate themselves as unhealthy. However, this negative correlation was mediated by civic participation (local politics, cultural events, sports, etc.). Thus, if people are involved in civic events they abstention at work is lower (Lancee and ter Hoeven, 2010). Moreover, social causes of disease have been suggested, for example lack of resources among low social class was related to higher mortality. Even stress, often associated with high status, produced a more devastating effect among lower class people. This is due to the lack of control perceived by the people in this social stratum (Marmot, 2005). Using the results provided by psychology, improvements in the health system utilization and general welfare could be achieved through the re-formulation of the current public policies.

    Another domain where psychology has clarified important issues is the voting behaviour. The aim of psychology studying the voting behaviour is to understand behavioural factors that determine who votes and how partisanship is formed. This topic is currently relevant since there have been a drop-off of the turnout in some European countries, such as United Kingdom and Ireland (Rallings et als, 2005; McKenzie and Delaney, 2005). Recent research has highlighted what factors have an effect on the turnout. Education has an inverse relationship with abstention, young and older people are less likely to vote and the same effect was found in people at a socioeconomic disadvantage. An analysis of the variables involved revealed that among high abstention group people demonstrate that they do not feel the duty to vote, display a low political interest, lack of guilt about abstention and the belief that voting will not make any difference. Conversely, having good health and belonging to civic groups have a positive effect on the turnout (McKenzie and Delaney, 2005). Once again, these examples illustrate how psychology can give clues to solve a problem after explaining the reasons underlying it. Therefore, only when we look at the reasons behind a certain problem we can tackle it with policy intervention.


    Finally, some suggestions that would lead to a higher participation of psychologists in public policy making will be given. Firstly, psychologists still need to make policy-makers listen. A good way to start would be working in the community where the environment is well known. After, these changes can be spread by people’s utilization of the new implementation. For example, the police line-up procedure was changed progressively from a district to the state (Amir et als., 2005). Another way of making policy-makers listen is via economy; once the economics outcomes are improved using psychological theories, it can lead to the creation of a new policy. Furthermore, psychologist’s education should include courses that explain and prepare them for their potential role influencing public policy.

    Besides all the methodological and political recommendations, it needs to be emphasized that public policy benefits should become a reality for everyone, not only for the people from developed countries, but also for those who life in worse conditions, those who may indeed need it more than people from the well-off first world.


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