Executive Order: Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People

Came across this thanks to Vaughan Bell on MindHacks.

President Obama has issued an executive order that acknowledges the importance of design in impacting behavior and psychology, a subject we have discussed here, most recently in relation to a scarcity mindset and our cognitive fallibility. Here’s the overview of the executive order:

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that behavioral science insights — research findings from fields such as behavioral economics and psychology about how people make decisions and act on them — can be used to design government policies to better serve the American people.

Where Federal policies have been designed to reflect behavioral science insights, they have substantially improved outcomes for the individuals, families, communities, and businesses those policies serve. For example, automatic enrollment and automatic escalation in retirement savings plans have made it easier to save for the future, and have helped Americans accumulate billions of dollars in additional retirement savings. Similarly, streamlining the application process for Federal financial aid has made college more financially accessible for millions of students.

To more fully realize the benefits of behavioral insights and deliver better results at a lower cost for the American people, the Federal Government should design its policies and programs to reflect our best understanding of how people engage with, participate in, use, and respond to those policies and programs. By improving the effectiveness and efficiency of Government, behavioral science insights can support a range of national priorities, including helping workers to find better jobs; enabling Americans to lead longer, healthier lives; improving access to educational opportunities and support for success in school; and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy. [Bold added]

To the point about automatic enrollment for retirement savings, this echoes advice from the authors of Scarcity to design for automating opt-in, rather than opt-out, as well the idea of designing for better choices to be more immediately accessible.

While some will perceive this order as paternalistic mind-control, I think this points to a promising shift in an approach to human-centered design in policy, rather than decision-making solely based on bureaucratic concerns.

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Cities, Psychology, and Design

Underneath the Henry Hudson Bridge
Underneath the Henry Hudson Bridge

As frequent readers of this blog know, context and physical environment impact psychology, behavior, and well-being.

There’s  been a few pieces worth reading that highlight the impact of the built environment to our mental state. Check them out:

Streets with No Game by Colin Ellard on  Aeon

Now the reason for the dismal recordings of happiness and arousal in participants standing in front of blank façades should be clearer. At a psychological level, these constructions fail us because we are biologically disposed to favour locations defined by complexity, interest, and the passing of messages of one kind or another.

Architecture’s brief love affair with psychology is overdue a revival by Carlos Galan-Diaz & Dörte Martens on The Conversation

The condition of a site is important to how people respond to it. One of the recurrent findings is that people tend to prefer environments that are clean, have a degree of ornamentation, are uncluttered, have an open view, good illumination and so forth. Good designs do not demand too much attention, and are easy to move through and understand – imagine the different experiences between a busy underground station at rush hour and a park in the full summer sun, for instance. Such environments tend to promote well being in a general overarching way.

Another critical success factor is participation, where the end users are involved in the design process. . . . 

And if we are going to build more compressed urban spaces to meet housing shortages in big cities like London, we need to think more in terms of spaces that restore elements of nature – these use up less of your attention and therefore help you to recharge rather than use more energy. This is why things like parks, landscape, water and a sense of wilderness are all important in urban spaces. In a similar vein, urban land consumption matters too. Better to build smaller apartments with large public community green spaces than use the same acreage to build large urban lofts with private green spaces, for instance. 

How to design a street that’s mentally rejuvenating by Christian Jarrett on BPS Research Digest

Greater architectural variation in the street scene and lower building height both contributed to the perception that the environment was restorative – allowing the participants to “rest and recover their abilities to focus”. Greater architectural variety also tended to go hand in hand with a greater sense of fascination and with “being away” (although not with preference), factors which explained the link with perceived restorative power. In contrast, higher buildings were associated with a diminished sense of “being away” and were judged less restorative.

For other posts on this topic:

https://schoolecosystem.wordpress.com/category/physical-environment/

How Can We Design Better Schools Within Aging Infrastructure?

Many schools are relegated to working in outdated facilities, in forms that no longer follow their function. Kurani saw an opportunity for design to make a difference. . . 

The campus design started from the logic that if lines between subjects are no longer clear, then lines between classrooms should not be either.

Working with schools especially, Kurani sees the value of “taking the school and nearby residents through a period of research, observation, and self-discovery,” he says. “It allows us to base design on meaningful insights about the project’s users and their daily lives.”

He calls this “community-centric design,” and it has dictated all of his projects so far.

—Zoe Balaconis, on architect Danish Kurani, “For Aging Schools: What ‘Community-Centric Design’ Could Look Like” on Mind/Shift

Design for Safety

We talk a lot about the physical design of schools on this blog, as we know that the physical environment can have a great impact on learning. In this article on CNN from Paul Caron from last year on designing schools for safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, here’s some principles of school design that are worth exploring.

Layers of hurdles can be designed for unwanted visitors, with corridors, entries and exits that are still clearly visible to teachers, said Robert Ducibella, a member of the Sandy Hook commission and founding principal of DVS Security Consulting and Engineering.

Adding transparent buffering allows time for visitors to be assessed. If we consider this design feature from the standpoint of aesthetics, not only safety, we could also consider how entryways can be used to transition visitors from the external community into the school community in a manner that communicates what the school is about. For example, there might be a series of switchbacks leading up to the school doors that could be adorned with plantings made by the students, or a short hallway before the entryway that depicts pictures and artwork made by the students.

Some security features can improve everyday life in schools. Adding doors that connect classrooms can make it easier for teachers to work as teams, and in a dangerous situation, makes it easier for them to move students to safer areas.

Glassed hallways allow teachers and other adults in the schools to see an intruder but also to combat problems such as bullying.

Visibility and connectability are important design features in a school. Open space design has been tried and rejected in education and now in many offices as too distracting, but having the option to both open up and close off spaces is important. Design that allows for this level of flexibility and control would be much appreciated by teachers so that they can collaborate in bigger or small groups as necessary without the acoustic and visual distractions of an open space.

Visibility is highly critical in a school not only for safety, but furthermore when we consider the importance of allowing natural light into a building. All too often schools feel like enclosed dungeons rather than like spaces we’d want our children to grow in and spend the majority of their day within.

The topic of physical infrastructure of schools isn’t a sexy topic, and it’s not written or discussed much in the media on education, yet it is clear that it is a critical consideration in education not only for its impact on learning, but furthermore for safety. As the article notes:

But it often takes a local tragedy to make security a priority. Security experts said lawmakers need to make safety upgrades mandatory, as they have in other areas.

It’s terrible to say, but America is built around response management,” said Ducibella, the Sandy Hook commission member. “In most states in the country, we don’t have a perfect security criteria document for school design, which the Sandy Hook commission is looking at. We don’t have uniform criteria that is legislatively enforceable.”

This is unfortunately true. But given that we tend to ignore the impact of the physical environment of schools on learning, I wonder how long the tragedy of decrepit schools must be inflicted on our children before we realize that how we design our schools reflects how we value our future?