Behavioural Public Policy and the Nudge Agenda

Module titleBehavioural Public Policy and the Nudge Agenda
Module codePOL2097
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Alice Moseley (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

How are policy makers using the insights of behavioural economics and social psychology to develop new and innovative ways of delivering public policy? In this module you will be introduced to the emerging field of behavioural ‘nudge’-inspired public policy. Behavioural interventions offer much potential for tackling some of society’s most pressing challenges but the jury is still very much out, both on the ethics and on the effectiveness of this way of doing public policy. You will learn about how nudges are being used in policy areas like health, savings, climate change, and taxation, and discuss the theory and assumptions underpinning these approaches.  As a class we will appraise the emerging evidence about the effectiveness of behavioural policy interventions, and discuss ethical issues and controversies surrounding the use of an approach which has been characterised by some critics as manipulative and non-transparent. This module will appeal to politics or other social science students with interests in applied public policy, ethics in public policy and human behaviour.  It does not require prior specialist knowledge of statistics, psychology or economics, and is recommended for those on interdisciplinary pathways.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The main objective of the module is to provide you with a critical understanding of how research and theoretical insights from the fields of behavioural economics and social psychology are being used to develop policy interventions in the contemporary era. In particular, the module discusses the apparently ‘boundedly rational’ nature of much human behaviour and the implications of this for governments seeking to develop policy tools or shape the ‘choice architecture’ to influence citizens.

The module will use up-to-date case studies of methods and techniques that are being employed by contemporary governments in OECD countries, which will provide a useful grounding for those wishing to pursue a career in government. The methods and techniques discussed however have a range of applications in the private and non-profit sectors and so the research insights introduced in this module will also have value for those wishing to pursue careers in these other sectors.

While the course has practical policy relevance, you will be encouraged to take a critical, questioning approach and the course will also cover ethical and legitimacy questions surrounding behavioural public policy and its specific applications.  You will engage in philosophical debates concerning ‘libertarian paternalism’ and explore research on the public’s view of the acceptability of Nudges.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of how behavioural economic and social psychological insights are being used by government to secure policy outcomes
  • 2. Demonstrate awareness of key heuristics employed in human decision-making
  • 3. Articulate and critically evaluate a range of theoretical perspectives concerning the role of the State in influencing citizen behaviour

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Synthesise and extract arguments from academic literature and apply these to real policy problems
  • 5. Develop literature searching and reviewing skills

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Present arguments in a cogent way to a non-specialist audience
  • 7. Work effectively as part of a team to deliver a defined project

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Whilst the module’s precise content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that the syllabus will cover the following topics:

  • What is Behavioural Public Policy?
  • Bounded Rationality; The Automatic and the Reflective System
  • Nudge & Libertarian Paternalism
  • Key Insights from Behavioural Economics: Behavioural Biases and Heuristics in Decision-Making
  • Social psychological insights
  • Nudge techniques; Nudge and the wider Government Toolkit
  • Nudging Citizens, Nudging Politicians and Bureaucrats

Throughout the module we discuss a variety of policy applications as outlined below, linking these to the underlying theory from behavioural economics and social psychology, and reviewing the empirical evidence of their effects:

  • Health & Lifestyle
  • Pro-Environmental Behaviours
  • Payment of taxes
  • Savings and financial behaviour
  • Civic behaviour/ voting

In the last part of the module, we consider ethical and normative questions surrounding the use of behavioural public policy, evaluate the merits or otherwise of this approach and discuss how behavioural policy techniques can be complementary to others.

  • Ethical issues surrounding behavioural public policy
  • The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism
  • Combining Nudge with Regulation – ‘Budge’

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities2211 x 2 hour Seminars – a mix of formal lectures, class and small group discussions, non-assessed presentation of group task/s
Guided Independent Study50Reading and seminar preparation including take home summary sheets
Guided Independent Study25Preparation for research briefing
Guided independent study25Preparation for essay
Guided independent study28Preparation for non-assessed group task/s – mix of individual and group preparation


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Group discussions of research briefings & essay plans1 page summary of each brought to class3,4 (essay) 1,2,5,6 (briefing)Oral (peers)
Small group assessment preparation activity, presented to class or small groups in class4-6 hours preparation time (mix of individual & group preparation)1, 4-7Oral (peers & tutor)

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay502,250 words1,3,4,6,7Written
Research briefing (i.e. a research review of behavioural change interventions in an area of the student’s own choosing)502,250 words1-2, 4-7Written


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay (2,250 words)1,3,4,6,7August/September reassessment period
Research briefingResearch briefing (2,250 words)1-2, 4-7August/September reassessment period


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Ariely, D. 2008.  Predictably irrational: the hidden forces that shape our decisions. London, Harper Collins.

Conly, S. 2013. Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

John, P. et al. 2011.  Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think: Experimenting with Ways to Change Civic Behaviour. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

John, P. 2018. How Far to Nudge: Assessing Behavioural Public Policy, Edward Elgar.

Kahneman, D. 2013.  Thinking, Fast and Slow Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

 Oliver, A. 2017.  The origins of behavioural public policy.  Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

 Oliver, A. 2013. Ed.  Behavioural Public Policy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Shafir, E (Ed). 2012. The Behavioural Foundations of Public Policy. Princetown University Press. 

Sunstein, C. 2016.  The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sunstein, C. 2015.  Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism. Yale University Press.

Sunstein, C. 2015. Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Thaler, R. and C. Sunstein. 2008.  Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Thaler, R. 2015. Misbehaving: the Making of Behavioural Economics. London: Allen Lane.

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Behavioural Public Policy

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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