L1: Change for Good

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Public policy needs to understand human behaviour better and promote behavioral change through a scientific approach. Both practitioners and researchers have actively embraced behavioural insights, leading to the creation of high-level policy initiatives and shifts in research attention across disciplines. Behavioural insights have been applied to environmental issues, health, tax evasion, education, labour market policies, charitable giving, saving and finance, voting, development and discrimination.

This course builds on much of the fascinating work in behavioral economics and allows you to develop a hands-on approach by understanding its methods (Part 1) and applications (Part 2).

I hope you will enjoy this course and that you will actively take part in all our discussions, teaching activities and group work.

For more information, please read carefully the (updated version of the) syllabus.

Let’s start with two examples of behavioral insights: defaults and implementation intentions.

Can Defaults Save Lives?

Hundreds or thousands of people wait for suitable (and life-saving!) organ donations. It is important for policy-makers to understand the primary factors that determine donation rates. How do countries’ default policies toward organ donation — i.e., whether people are automatically listed as organ donors with an option to opt-out, or vice versa —  affect propensity to donate?

The authors of the first article I asked you to read for today, use natural and experimental data to examine the impact of simple policy defaults on the decision to become an organ donor, finding large effects that significantly increase donation rates. Since people consider the default policy as a norm, policy-makers need to understand how default settings create a path of least resistance. Opting for a different path requires people to overcome their inertia, and also to oppose what they may view as a societal norm.

Please watch from min 2:50 to min 13:35 of the following video in which Eric Johnson presents his paper. You can watch, if you want, the rest of the talk to hear about other applications of defaults in policy making.

Can implementation intentions increase influenza vaccination?

Katherine Milkman and coauthors designed a field experiment to measure the effect of prompts to form implementation intentions on realizing behavioral outcomes. Interestingly, those who received the prompt to write down just a date had a vaccination rate 1.5 percentage points higher than the control group, which was statistically insignificant. Those who received the more specific prompt to write down both a date and a time had a 4.2 percentage point higher vaccination rate, a difference that is both statistically significant and of meaningful magnitude.

Please watch from min 8:00 to min 9:35 of the following video in which Katherine Milkman presents her paper. Again, you can watch the rest of the talk to hear about other principles to improve decisions.

Please now answer Assignment 1 based on the reading for this lecture.

Deadline: Wednesday, September 2 at 15:15.

Suggested answers available here after the deadline.

Please connect to my Zoom (link in Absalon) on Wednesday, September 2 at 15:15.

We will discuss about the syllabus and the course organization (lectures, assignments, group work, etc.). It is also a great opportunity for you to ask questions.


Remember we have a Zoom Etiquette, see video below.

Summary for this lecture:

  • After some methodological lectures (Part 1) we will see real-life examples where behavioral economics can be applied (Part 2).
  • Group work and active participation to teaching activities are essential for this (online) course.
  • Defaults and implementation intentions are two of the behavioral tools we will learn to use.

To know more:


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