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Prompted Rationality

Mission Statement

What should governments do to engage people with the common good when it is not so obvious when and in what way people will experience benefit for themselves? What, for instance, is the best response to the declining willingness to get vaccinations for personal concerns about side effects? Or to parents opting for primary schools with fewer pupils from migrant descent to promote their own children’s school career? Resolving this kind of problems has proven impossible when governments keep grounding their public policies on classic models of governance that either emphasize free choice (libertarian) or direction of choice by the well-known carrot or stick (paternalistic).

Our program of research proposes an innovative and integrated framework for the design of public policies that go beyond the conventional distinction between libertarian and paternalistic perspectives. Based on a radically different understanding of how autonomous choice for the common good comes about, the ultimate objective of our program is to elucidate new design principles for public policies to reconcile personal and societal interest. Our approach is unique as for the first time a coherent and comprehensive effort is made to align multidisciplinary expertise from leading scholars of public administration, behavioral science, law, ethics, political science, economics, sociology, communication science, design, and data science to investigate the problem of involving people with the common good.

We introduce the novel model of Prompted Rationality as the foundation of public policy aimed at autonomous choice for integrating personal and collective benefit. This model is based on philosophical and psychological critiques of ‘rational man’ approaches to decision making and recent insights from embodied-situated cognitive science. It rests on two key principles: 1) autonomy exists in people’s ability to act upon goals that emerge in person-environment interaction, and 2) people are inherently empathic in that embodied mechanisms enable them to predict and emotionally evaluate the consequences of their actions for others as if it concerned themselves. Rational choice then is the result of an optimal balance between autonomy and empathy with others in weighing personal and societal benefit. Public policy arrangements informed by this model are called prompts, hence our model of Prompted Rationality.

Applied to the prototypical case of vaccination that poses a pressing problem to many governments, public policy informed by prompts elicits empathic concern for others in communicating the relevance of vaccination: Prompted Rationality provides people with cues that trigger and motivate altruistic goals, which allow them to decide autonomously for the common good. In doing so, it differs from public policies that leave it to people themselves to decide what they want to do (libertarian), obligate them to get vaccinated (paternalistic), or provide them with an opt-out arrangement (soft paternalism or nudging, in between paternalistic and libertarian).

This framework informs a large and systematic research program with a particular focus on four policy domains that are in urgent need of rethinking the principles for engaging citizens with decisions to optimize personal and collective benefit: education (e.g., school choice), public health (e.g., vaccination), sustainability (e.g., green energy), and personal finance (e.g., pensions). These issues will be addressed in close collaboration with prime societal partners from public bodies and private companies and the results will be validated in a triangle of three large cities (connected to the three universities leading the consortium) that are responsible for implementing public policy in the local context.

The theoretical and empirical part of the framework consists of five coherent work packages that examine, with increasing levels of complexity, how novel choice arrangements affect autonomy, choice behavior and its downstream consequences (such as choice satisfaction and trust in government) and the ultimate societal implications (such as segregation in case of school choice). WP1 will examine the basic principles of the novel theoretical framework by a multidisciplinary analysis of autonomy as a function of choice arrangements. WP2 will focus on existing choice arrangements and societal debate about autonomous choice in various choice contexts and within specific interest groups. WP3 will test experimental prototypes of novel choice arrangements aimed at facilitating autonomous choice in field studies and measure their impact. WP4 will assess the framework’s robustness across methods and generalizability across policy domains and generate scenarios for future policy effects on individual and societal functioning in an integrated model. WP5 will generate guiding principles for the design of new public policy arrangements in conjunction with ethics and law, and determine the legitimacy and feasibility of these new arrangements as well as its overall societal impact. In sum, our research program will establish an innovative international research agenda that offers new insights and design principles for future public policy aimed at endowing people with the ability to actively contribute to and participate in society.