New Hopes for Realistic Utopias: Promises and Challenges of Nudging and Empirically Informed Policy-Making

Since Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s bestselling book Nudge (Thaler & Sunstein 2008), political theorists and philosophers but also politicians and public servants have increasingly focused on inventing, implementing and evaluating policies based on empirical insights from economics and psychology. While some use experimental evidence retrieved from randomized controlled trials (e.g. ‘Behavioral Insights Team’ in the UK), others simply copy and paste tricks that have proven their effectiveness in other domains and circumstances (e.g. using specific default rules). The idea is to employ the growing knowledge on human motivation and behavior to develop policies that work for people like you and me (and not for some ideally rational or moral agents).

This revives the classic idea of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762/1983: 17) to take people “as they are and laws as they might be”. John Rawls (1999: 12) later dubbed this the quest for “a realistic utopia”. This workshop aims to critically reflect on the promises and challenges of using empirical insights in the implementation and evaluation of policies.

What exactly are the benefits of using empirical insights to guide policy-making? What are the limits and challenges? To what extent does this strategy live up to its promises? Some have argued that the psychological model that underlies most of this literature is unrealistic in itself, for example in that assumes an inner rational agent that is simply not there.

While nudges have been heavily debated in the context of paternalism, they can also be employed in order to achieve environmental goals, raise tax revenues or increase prosocial behavior. If research reveals people to care about these goals but fail to realize them because of akrasia, procrastination or laziness, why not have government agencies help them a hand? Are these all legitimate policy goals? Are there policy goals that fall beyond the scope of such techniques? What exactly are the (practical, ethical and political) problems nudging enthusiasts have to tackle? To which extent can these be overcome?

This workshop brings together researchers who are looking for realistic utopias or are interested in the role behavioral sciences can or should play in informing policy-making. It invites submissions on the following and related questions:

  • What are the pros and cons of nudging?
  • Under which conditions and in which circumstances are nudges legitimate policy tools?
  • Are some policy domains more suitable areas for implementing nudges?
  • Which values are at stake in this discussion?
  • Should government take people as they are or as they can become (e.g. through education)?
  • Which role is left for informing, educating, incentivizing and coercing people?
  • Which policy goals are legitimate in light of empirical evidence about people’s psychology?
  • Does such evidence justify (means- or ends-)paternalism? Does it have broader ramifications?
  • Should government refrain from tapping into specific psychological mechanisms (e.g. cognitive biases or conformism)?
  • Which other techniques and empirical data are available but still underdeveloped?

We invite abstracts of 400-500 words (suitable for 30 minutes presentation). Please send your abstract, together with your name and affiliation to Bart Engelen ( by Wednesday June 8, 2016.

Applicants will be informed of a decision soon thereafter. If you are a graduate student or retiree, you can apply for a bursary from the MANCEPT organizers until June 10, so make sure you send in your abstract on time.