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The Science of Using Science

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Behavioural public policy is increasingly interested in scaling-up experimental insights to deliver systemic changes. Recent evidence shows some forms of individual behaviour change, such as nudging, are limited in scale. We argue, we can scale up individual behaviour change by accounting for nuanced social complexities in which human responses to behavioural public policies are situated. We introduce the idea of the "social brain", as a construct to help practitioners and policymakers facilitate a greater social transmission of pro-social behaviours. The social brain encompasses complex human relationships interacted with elements of the choice architecture. It includes three main components: (1) individual actors, representing nodes in the social brain, who interact with other actors through (2) verbal and non-verbal cues, and who are affected by the (3) physical environment in which they belong. Ignoring the social brain runs the risk of fostering localised behavioural changes, through individual actors, which are neither scalable nor lasting. We identify pathways to facilitate changes in the social brain: either through path dependencies or critical mass shifts in individual behaviours, moderated by the brain's property of social cohesion and multiplicity of situational and dispositional factors. In this way, behavioural changes stimulated in one part of the social brain can reach other parts and evolve dynamically. We recommend designing public policies that engage different parts of the social brain as a whole.
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Behavioral economics and field experiments within the social sciences have advanced well beyond academic curiosum. Governments around the globe as well as the most powerful firms in modern economies employ staffs of behavioralists and experimentalists to advance and test best practices. In this study, we combine behavioral economics with field experiments to reimagine a new model of early childhood education. Our approach has three distinct features. First, by focusing public policy dollars on prevention rather than remediation, we call for much earlier educational programs than currently conceived. Second, our approach has parents at the center of the education production function rather than at its periphery. Third, we advocate attacking the macro education problem using a public health methodology, rather than focusing on piecemeal advances.
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Economists are increasingly turning to the experimental method as a means to estimate causal effects. By using randomization to identify key treatment effects, theories previously viewed as untestable are now scrutinized, efficacy of public policies are now more easily verified, and stakeholders can swiftly add empirical evidence to aid their decision-making. This study provides an overview of experimental methods in economics, with a special focus on developing an economic theory of generalizability. Given that field experiments are in their infancy, our secondary focus pertains to a discussion of the various parameters that they identify, and how they add to scientific knowledge. We conclude that until we conduct more field experiments that build a bridge between the lab and the naturally-occurring settings of interest we cannot begin to make strong conclusions empirically on the crucial question of generalizability from the lab to the field.Institutional subscribers to the NBER working paper series, and residents of developing countries may download this paper without additional charge at www.nber.org.