Public Policy Through Psychology: How Princeton’s Kahneman-Treisman Center is Making a Global Difference

Tiffany Pham

After receiving an anonymous $10 million donation, Princeton University launched the Daniel Kahneman and Anne Treisman Center for Behavioral Science and Public Policy.  It was officially established in September 2016 as an extension of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The unnamed benefactor, reportedly an undergraduate’s parent, intended for the donation to expand the research of Daniel Kahneman and Anne Treisman, two Professors of Psychology Emeriti at the university.

In 2002, Professor Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on judgement and decision-making in behavioral economics, while Professor Treisman earned a National Medal of Science in 2013 for her contributions to the fields of human attention and perception. While the Kahneman-Treisman Center focuses primarily on behavioral science and psychology, it attracts researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including sociology, politics, philosophy, gender and sexuality studies, and environmental studies.

With its interdisciplinary research, the center hopes to further explore the unique psychology behind an individual’s decision-making processes. While it is rational to assume that individuals always make optimal choices based on their own interests, this is not always the case. Researchers at the Kahneman-Treisman Center aim to analyze the discrepancy between an individual’s optimal choice and his/her actual choice. The ultimate goal of the Kahneman-Treisman Center is to integrate findings from researchers’ various fields to implement more effective public policy.

Psychology professor and Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prentice described the center’s focus on interdisciplinary research as the overlapping portion of a Venn diagram between psychology and public policy. At first, Dean Prentice identified strictly as a psychology researcher, but she quickly became involved in the field of public policy. “When you start looking more at the behavioral consequences of the way people think in a social context, you very often get into policy relevance,” she commented.

Deputy Director of the Kahneman-Treisman Center, Betsy Levy Paluck, called the center a response to the growing relevance of psychology in public policy. Paluck remarked that the influence of psychology in policy was first recognized by economists, leading to the creation of behavioral economics. This field is of particular importance to policymakers, who use it to make more realistic predictions about limitations in policy regulations. Paluck explained: “[The merger of] psychology and policy leads you to a different solution [than policy would alone]. It’s a pragmatic theory about behavior, in addition to a kind of process theory about the different ways that we think about the world and our mind.”

FEMALE EMPOWERMENT IN COLOMBIA

Along with PhD researcher Margaret Tankard, Dean Prentice and Deputy Director Paluck have undertaken a project in Cali, Colombia, studying the empowerment of women financially and psychologically. Intimate-partner violence (IPV) is particularly high in Cali, and policymakers are interested in reducing it through financial intervention. The Princeton researchers’ study initially predicted that increased female financial independence might serve as a method to reduce IPV. Prentice, Paluck, and Tankard then conducted a field experiment in which Cali women were empowered financially through incentivized savings accounts and socially by making it known that many female community members were using such accounts. Researchers tracked the women long-term to see if the level of domestic abuse they reported experiencing decreased over time.

While discussing this study in Cali, Prentice remarked on the superficiality of social norms. While these norms affect everyone daily, they are merely dependent on what an individual perceives: “What comes as a surprise is how much our sense of the norms is based on what we conceive, what is visible, what people say and what you see. But this is not a perfectly representative sample of what’s out there,” Prentice said. “The necessary visibility of social norms can lead to various biases in their formation. Cali, as the sixth most dangerous city in the world, has an extremely restricted public sphere.” A public sphere restricted by violence and crime causes citizens to stray from public centers and communal areas that would otherwise facilitate healthier social norms.

“The kinds of interventions that we can do very easily here [in the US] do not work there [in Cali]. This is the way that psychology works,” Prentice said. Social norms encompass the information people are exposed to, what they see, what they hear, and how they know this information. By studying all the facets of social norms, Prentice remarked, researchers “can understand a lot more about why certain kinds of policies are implemented and how they work.”

Prentice noted that her Kahneman-Treisman Center research has not only spread through other disciplines, but has also influenced her teaching. One of her favorite courses to teach is a seminar on social psychology, where students are granted a unique perspective on public policy, which is useful whether they plan on careers as economists, political scientists, or sociologists.

“I love teaching on this because I think a lot of students who are interested in psychology and policy aren’t going to become psychologists; they’re going to go out and try to change the world,” Prentice said. “This perspective—thinking like a psychologist about how you would create policy—is really helpful.”

POLICY AND PSYCHOLOGY ON CAMPUS

Deputy Director Paluck teaches a class at the Woodrow Wilson School called, “Psychology for Policy Analysis and Implementation.” The course studies the effects of social norms on the formulation and implementation of public policy. Recently, Paluck and her postdoctoral research associate, Ana Gantman, talked with students about the processes of designing social interventions. Paluck commented that her students bring unique perspectives to her own outlook on behavioral policy and are often applicable to her research.

One of Paluck’s projects concerns purposeful deviations from social norms. The research studies people who consciously decide to “stick out” and investigates how they do so in a way that protects them instead of alienating them. Paluck remarked that this study may help researchers further analyze the social aspects of different issues, whether they be local, like eating-club culture and membership, or global, like international policy.

Paluck believes that the Kahneman-Treisman Center will continue to play an important role in the field of policy, particularly over the next four years, as new policy challenges are assessed. She described the need for psychological and behavioral perspectives on the types of policies that should be implemented, as well as the social effects of current policies: “I think the Kahneman-Treisman Center will continue its work as a home for understanding and designing new behavioral ideas… [It] could become an important leader in this field, finding the kinds of analyses and planning and thoughts necessary for the future.”

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