The Philadelphia Citizen: Marketing for Good
So far, six departments have started work with the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative [PBSI], which pairs volunteer researchers from Penn, Swarthmore, Temple, Princeton, and Drexel with city officials to essentially help answer a series of simple but important questions: How do you communicate with residents? How does that make them behave? How can you get more of them to take advantage of more cost-saving and healthy measures?
“Marketers have done this for a long time, to get you to buy a certain pair of jeans, or orange juice,” explains Syon Bhanot, a behavioral and public economist at Swarthmore College, who is working on several different city projects. “We try to think about, Why doesn’t the city do it as a way to save money, and save people money? I think of it as marketing for good.”
Most people outside of marketing and academics probably first heard of behavioral science in 2002, when psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in this area. In 2009, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published the New York Times bestseller Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, a non-academic explainer for how and why we make decisions. “The book made policymakers take notice,” Bhanot says.
The effort to incorporate behavioral science into city government has taken off in the wake of those two projects in the last four or five years, as the field has become more “cool and known,” as Bhanot puts it. “The ideas aren’t new, but the applications are,” he says. “A lot of research that’s been done so far involves bringing undergrad students into the lab, describing a strange behavioral quirk and writing about it. But if the concepts don’t work in the real world, who cares if they work on undergrads?”
Bhanot and three other academics from Swarthmore, Penn, and Princeton formed PBSI to apply what researchers know—and want to know—about real people’s behaviors in real world situations. The relationship with City Hall happened a bit organically—PBSI was looking for a way to work with city government at the same time as the city had started looking for ways to increase its use of behavioral science techniques.
Syon Bhanot is an expert in behavioral economics, public policy, experimental economics, decision-making, and public economics. Bhanot earned a B.A. from Princeton University, an M.P.P. from Harvard Kennedy School, and a Ph.D. in Public Policy from Harvard University. He is a member of the American Economic Association and is an academic affiliate with the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics and the Yale Applied Cooperation Team.