From behavioural economics to behavioural politics


Reflecting on Homo Politicus –

Provisional thoughts on the scope and implications of Behavioural Politics


Behavioural economics has undoubtedly enabled us to better understand why our liberal economic systems are failing, but this does not mean it is necessarily best placed to interpret the fault lines running through our political systems as well…

 The basis and implications of re-thinking homo-politicus

The creative fusion of economics and psychology within the behavioural economics movement has had significant impacts on the way in which we think about the nature of personal decision-making. No longer do we seriously think of the consumer as a careful thinker, operating in oceans of social isolation, and devoted to unseemly acts of self-interest. Rather we are beginning to acknowledge the general ‘irrationalities’ that characterise human behaviour, and are reforming our models of human decision-making, and modes of behavioural governance, accordingly. The political implications of the behavioural science are, comparatively, underdeveloped. While behavioural economics had led to a proliferation of so-called Behavioural Public Policies globally, such policies are primarily about how behavioural insights can be used to generate more effective policies. But what are the actual political implications of behavioural science insights into the human condition?

To put things another way, if behavioural economics has given us pause for thought in relation to our depiction of homo economicus, what are its implications for homo politicus? The thesis I want to explore here goes further than this, however. The particular issues that a recast understand of homo politicusraises—both in relation to the political life of citizens, and the broader functioning of liberal democratic systems—require the more general study of behavioural politics. Of course, the field of behavioural politics already exists, and has its own colourful history (see below). In its current form, however, behavioural politics is a fairly implicit affair operating within the interdisciplinary shadow of behavioural economics. As a consequence of operating in this shadow, the figure at the centre of the contemporary behavioural politics imaginary tends to be a citizen consumer, whose everyday choices and challenges are interpreted through the lens of economic rationalities. This tends to mean that even where behavioural politics perspectives are evident, they are primarily interested in the nature of the political decisions of individual citizens, and less with the existential political implications of the behavioural science.

Although behavioural politics may operate in the shadow of its economics sibling now, it is important to acknowledge its historical antecedents. One of the defining moments in the history of behavioural politics came in the late 1930s with the work of German psychologist Kurt Lewin at the Iowa Child Welfare Centre. During a series of experiments Lewin and his graduate student (Ronald Lippitt) used different leadership techniques to produce political atmospheres—authoritarian, laissez-faire, and democratic—and to orchestrate the political disposition of groups. In Lewin’s attic laboratory we see the application of behavioural insights to form the conditions under which political practices and norms can be established—with subservience emerging from authoritarian situations, and deliberation and cooperation from democratic scenarios. What we can discern in Lewin’s experiment is the fleeting production of homo politicus, albeit within a contrived psychological experiment. But, for Lewin the experiments were significant because they offered a basis for believing in the ontological existence of democratic life (Lezuan and Calvillo, 2014). These are important experiments to the extent that they demonstrated the potential power of behavioural science within the very genesis of political systems. These experiments would of course be a precursor to the wider application of psychological insights to serve political goals in the post second world war period. The birth of ‘mind control’ science and psych-ops. was, of course, a very particular fusion of psychology and politics (which was primarily concerned with strategic military advantages) and is not directly relevant to our discussion of behavioural politics here (apart from further emphasising the vulnerabilities of homo-politicus).

Despite the historical significance of Lewin’s psycho-political experiments, I am not primarily interested here in psychology as a foundational impetus for democratic politics. Rather I am concerned with the impacts (both actual and potential) of the behavioural sciences on how we understand actually existing liberal political practices.  But for now, let us consider what is at stake in pronouncing a behavioural politics perspective on the world. The work of Julie Cohen (2012) provides a helpful step-off point for a discussion of behavioural politics. According to Cohen, the liberal political and legal subject is defined by three key attributes:

  1. Anautonomous rights-bearing subject, who is able to exercise those rights independently and regardless of whatever context they may find themselves within.
  2. A capacity for rational deliberation, which is again independent of context, and is based upon the ready availability of the truth.
  3. A transcendent subjectivity, which is independent of the materiality of the body

(see Yeung, 2016: 17 for a more detailed discussion of these characteristics)

While fanciful, these assumptions are central to the liberal system of freedom, equity, and social stability. Of course, the behavioural sciences question the assumptions of autonomy, context independence, rationality, and immateriality associated with liberal subjectivity. Within behavioural economics, for example, the model of human liberal subjectivity is effectively reversed: as autonomy is combined with an appreciation of social influence and unconscious prompting; context and choice environments are seen as prominent variables within human decision-making; the irrational is recognised as a key factor within observed behaviours; and the materiality of our bodies and environments are foregrounded. While much of this is now accepted wisdom, my concern is what difference does this make for how we understand the behavioural dynamics of liberal democratic society. It is in the context of this question that I think a specifically behavioural political perspective can offer important analytical insights.

It is worth considering why greater critical attention has not been given to the figure of homo-politicus. The answer to this question can, perhaps, be discerned in the one of the most prominent moments when homo politicus has been subject to sustained critique. The publication of B.F. Skinner’s 1972 Beyond Freedom and Dignity embodied a direct behaviourist attack on liberal assumptions of subjectivity. In this controversial volume, Skinner targets homo politicus (in his words the “inner man”, or “autonomous man” (sic)) as the hollow subject of Western philosophy and democracy. According to Skinner,

‘The function of the inner man (sic) is to provide an explanation which will not be explained in turn. Explanation stops with him. He is not a mediation point between past history and current behaviour, he is a centrefrom which behaviour emanates’ (original emphasis) (1972: 14)

Furthermore, Skinner observes,

‘He [the inner man] initiates, originates, creates, and in doing so he remains, as he was for the Greeks, divine. We say he is autonomous—and, so far as a science of behaviour is concerned, that means miraculous’ (ibid: 14).

In locating homo politicus within the ancient norms of Greek philosophy, Skinner’s volume may indicate why it has been so difficult to critically scrutinise related subjective assumptions: to do so would appear to destabilise the ancient democratic norms which coevolved with this figure. But it is, of course, perfectly possible to hold firm to the normative prerogatives of democracy, which seeks to maintain justice and dignity within the human condition, while questioning its subjective foundations.

The nascent field(s) of Behavioural Politics

While those working on what I would term behavioural politics would not necessarily self-identify with the term, it is possible to discern at least three branches of this inchoate movement.

I refer to the first branch as those working on Applied Behavioural Politics.Applied Behavioural Politics itself takes two main forms. First, is work that seeks to apply the insights of the behavioural sciences to public policy issues (i.e. climate change, public health) (see Oliver 2013) (this body of work tends to go by the name of Behavioural Public Policy). Second, is research that focuses on how behavioural insights can address specific political problems (i.e. low voter turn-out; lack of civic participation) (see John, 2011).

The second branch can best be described as Critical behavioural politics. Related work in this area (to which I have contributed) has explored the potential negative impact of behavioural public policies on political life. Related work in this area has considered the ethical implications of applying of the behavioural sciences (often targeted at the collective unconscious) and their implications for personal autonomy and political accountability (see Jones et al 2013; Leggett, 2014; Lepenies et al 2018).

The third branch is Analytical Behavioural Politics. Related work in this area is primarily concerned with the implications of the behavioural sciences for the underlying assumptions and practices of liberal democratic society. Analytical behavioural politics is concerned with the impacts of behavioural public policies, but also considers the broader implications of behavioural insights for how we might think about democracy, freedom, state intervention, and citizenship (see Button, 2018; Sunstein, 2019; Whitehead et al 2018).  

In this remainder of this post, I will consider the application of analytical behavioural politics and its potential implications.

Mobilising Behavioural Politics – on Freedom and Bounded Democracy

While the scope for studying behavioural politics is broad (and would certainly at this moment be relevant within analyses of identity politics and popularism, for example), in this section I will focus on its particular pertinence to questions of freedom and democracy. Perhaps the clearest statement of the parameters of an analytical behavioural politics for freedom and democracy is offered by Yuval Noah Harari. In a recent piece for The GuardianHarari reflects upon the myths of freedom that are central to liberal democracies. According to Harari ‘the liberal story is flawed [because] it does not tell the truth about humanity’ (2018). Harari observes that liberalism is founded on a belief that humans have free will and that political systems should be constructed in ways that preserve the freedom of that will. While the liberal call to preserve free will in part rests on a desire to protect human dignity, it is also predicted on what Tobias (2005) calls ‘Rational Agency Freedom.’ In the terms of Rational Agency, it is not just that humans have an inherently free will (to choose what they will), but that freedom is a gateway to unlocking forms rationality, which are unknown, and largely unknowable, to governing authorities. The presumption of rationality is what makes liberal freedom, in its fullest form, desirable. But, Harari argues,

‘Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints’ (2018).

For Harari then, the idea of free will—and associated presumptions of rationality—have been inherited from Christian theology to provide liberalism with a secular basis for attributing rights and responsibilities. But, as behavioural science has consistently revealed, there is no scientific evidence to suggest the existence of what Skinner described as an inner person, who is free from physical and biological constraints. From a behavioural politics perspective, Harari’s reflections are significant because they reveal the political dangers associated with presumptions of free will and Rational Agency Freedom. In an age of big data, smart tech, and biometric information Harari outlines the emerging opportunities for governments and corporations to manipulate human behaviour at scale (this is what Zubuff (2019) has described as surveillance capitalism). For Harari, ‘[i]f governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human animal, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will’. In this context, behavioural politics is best thought of as an analytical perspective that focuses on the political realities facing homo sapiens rather than the myths of homo politicus.

The most extensive body of work in the field of behavioural politics has been developed by Cass Sunstein. In his 2014 volume Why Nudge, Sunstein challenges the epistemic foundations of Mill’s Harm Principle, which has been so important to delimiting legitimate and illegitimate forms of governmental actions in liberal society. A central part of Sunstein’s argument rest on the idea that if choice can be preserved (through nudging techniques) then government’s may have a role in regulating harm-to-self actions (or internalities) as well as harm-to-others (externalities). More recently, Sunstein has reflected on the implications of the behavioural sciences for liberal norms of freedom. In On Freedom Sunstein (2019) suggest limits on prevailing liberal assumption about freedom on two grounds: 1) on basis of the evidence that suggests that the clear antecedent preferences associated with acting freely are not as common as we might think; and 2) that the world in which we live is structured in such a way that acting in our own best interests (without guidance) is often difficult. Sunstein ultimately argues that established notions of liberal freedom need to be revised to reflect the cognitive and contextual realities that make navigatingthrough our lives freely so difficult. As an intervention in behavioural politics, Sunstein’s work is significant because it recognises the constitutional disjuncture that exists between liberal political practices and structures, and the behavioural realities that inhibit the achievement of freedom in ostensibly free societies.

A further intervention within analytical behavioural political of note is provided by Mark E. Button. Button’s work is significant for connecting the discovery of bounded human rationality within the behavioural sciences with the subsequent ‘bounding of democracy’ within the political sphere (2018). Reflecting on the practices of a behaviourally-informed “nudging-state”, Button raises concerns that while such forms of intervention may be justified in terms welfare, they have potentially negative connotations for political agency and civic capacity (2018: 1035). Button is concerned that the forms of (soft) paternalism that are associated with behavioural public policy can erode political agency. In particular, Button reflects upon the tendency of behavioural policies to emanate from unelected behavioural experts, and to focus on individual as oppose to collective action. In a telling reflection, Button observes,

‘Today’s behavioralists, in contrast to their academic ancestors in the 1950s and 1960s, are less interested in explaining political behavior (as individual and collective phenomena) and far more concerned with orchestrating private (often consumer-oriented) behaviors to serve individual and social welfare ends’ (2018: 1037)

It is here that we begin to see the costs of approaching political problems from a behavioural economics perspective. Button argues that emerging systems of behavioural government fail to perceive subjects as citizens engaged in public life and collective acts of freedom. While making decision-making easier (by often removing the cognitive burden of having to think and deliberate about them) may make sense in relation to more economically-oriented actions, when it comes to politics getting more actively involved in, and even contesting, courses of action is rather the point of being political.

Within the work Button we sense what is missing within more behavioural economic approaches to questions of freedom. While the behavioural economist may be satisfied that the preservation of individual choice is enough to safeguard freedom, behavioural politics, almost inevitably, raises broader concern over consent, legitimacy, and collective forms of action. Ultimately, Button observes that “[c]itizens in their public capacity as agents of political freedom are missing from the latest integration of behavioral science and public policy” (2018: 1040)

Analytical behavioural politics thus draws critical attention to the democratic consequences of certain constructions of citizenship within behavioural state actions. It does so, however, while acknowledging that the behavioural perspective has much to offer accounts of the political. As Button astutely observes,

‘One of the advantages of taking the behavioral sciences seriously within the design and conduct of democratic deliberative practices is that we can purchase greater psychological realism without sacrificing democratic aspirationalism’ (2018: 1043)

Psychological realism without sacrificing democratic aspirationalism captures the essence of the analytical behavioural politics I have sought to outline here. Just because behavioural economics has enabled us to better understand why our liberal economic systems are failing, does not mean it has the answers to the failings of our political systems as well. Indeed, it could be argued that behavioural economics (in the form of behavioural public policy) could be contributing to some of the problems of liberal democratic societies. Could behavioural politics offer fresh insights that can illuminate emerging political developments (including declining rates of political participation, identity politics, the changing norms of personal freedom) and offer new ways of invigorating liberal political systems? May be.


Button, M. E. (2018). “Bounded Rationality without Bounded Democracy: Nudges, Democratic Citizenship, and Pathways for Building Civic Capacity ” Perspectives on Politics 16(4): 1034-1052.

Cohen, J.E. (2012) Configuring the Networked Self (Yale University Press, New Haven)

Lezuan, J. and Calvillo, N (2014) “In the Political Laboratory: Kurt Lewin’s Atmospheres” Journal of Cultural Economy 7: 434-457

Harari, J.N. (2018) “The myth of freedom” The Guardian

John, P., Cotterill, S., Moseley, A, Richadson, L., Smith, G., Stoker, G. and Wales, C. (2011) Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think (Bloomsbury, London).

Jones, R., Pykett, J. and Whitehead, M. (2013) Changing Behaviours: On the Rise of Psychological State(Cheltenham, Edward Elgar).

Leggett, W. (2014) “The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism, and the state” Policy and Politics 42: 3-19.

Lepenies et al 2018

Oliver, A. ed. (2013) Behavioural Public Policy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Sunstein, C. R. (2019).On Freedom(Princeton University Press, Oxford).

Sunstein, C.R. (2014) Why Nudge? The Politcs of LIbertarian Paternalism(Yale University Press, London)

Tobias, S. (2005). “Foucault on Freedom and Capabilities ” Theory, Cultire and Society 22: 65-85.

Yeung, K. (2016). “‘Hypernudge’: Big Data as a Nodue if Regulation by Design’ ” TLI Think! Paper28/2016.

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. (London, Profile Books).




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