Social Science’s to do list


Top ten social-science questions according to the journal Nature (HT Alex)

1. How can we induce people to look after their health?

2. How do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?

3. How can humanity increase its collective wisdom?

4. How do we reduce the ‘skill gap’ between black and white people in America?

5. How can we aggregate information possessed by individuals to make the best decisions?

6. How can we understand the human capacity to create and articulate knowledge?

7. Why do so many female workers still earn less than male workers?

8. How and why does the ‘social’ become ‘biological’?

9. How can we be robust against ‘black swans’ — rare events that have extreme consequences?

10. Why do social processes, in particular civil violence, either persist over time or suddenly change?

We're working on a number of these issues, directly or indirectly. What about you? Are you increasing the body of knowledge and how? And if not, why not?


  1. ebun okubanjo
    February 3, 2011

    I am currently reading Nudge, just finished predictably irrational and I read your book last year. I wonder if you can clarify your position on Nudge and can you briefly explain this blog post, do you think we should be doing these things to build better communities or should we do nothing? I agree with your perspective for the most part the part that I don’t get is that you seem to think we have no hope to at least do some things, Nudge does not seem to be such a bad idea? Confused

  2. Mark Earls
    February 3, 2011

    Hi there Ebun.
    I think my pov on Nudge is relatively straightforward but I’ll restate it here.
    On the one hand anything that moves the thinking on from the rather dull classical economics models which still dominate much policy and management thinking is to be applauded. The insights into individual behaviour that Nudge is based on are by and large sound.
    However, it is only a first step on. In that it still assumes that humans are fundamentally individual agents, who shape their own individual behaviours independently of those around them, when the truth is we are a fundamentally social creature – we live our lives out “with and through each other” as the Ubuntu proverb has it.
    Also, as a result – and as a recent post of mine pointed out – there’s precious little evidence for nudging’s effectiveness in changing the behaviour of large numbers of people.
    At the same time, there’s a lot of political self-deception involved in its deployment in public policy: on the one hand, it’s been particularly popular with those who want to cut the cost of government interventions into citizens’ behaviour because it seems to offer simple and cheap fixes for what are fundamentally complex and tricky problems; on the other, for many advocates, it seems to square the circle on the paternalistic nature of state interventions in our lives – it’s supposed to lead to more effective solutions but nobody will know that we’re doing it to them.
    Hence, Prof Marteau’s political philosophy not behavioural science comment.

  3. Tom
    February 3, 2011

    An interesting thinker you are.
    A graphic designer you are not.
    Tiny white text on pink? What were you thinking man?
    For the love of god – and the sake of my failing eyesite – get an art director mate in to pick you a decent one.

  4. jonathan wheeler
    February 5, 2011

    Is that you or Gok Kwan speaking at the ARF in March?
    see you there!

  5. Applestockquote
    February 6, 2011

    Hey I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading your blog. You have good views, Keep up the good informative info.

  6. john mcdonald
    February 6, 2011

    Mark, I have to say I am intrigued by your reluctance to accept that nudges in their various forms do impact the behavior of large numbers of people.
    The study you reference in your recent post (the BJM study) says as much, to quote “Nudging certainly works. Shaping environments to cue certain behaviours is extremely effective, unfortunately often to the detriment of our health”. It then states there is little evidence to date that nudges have been used to effectively improve the health of people, not that they cannot work.
    I totally agree with your broader point on the intrinsically ‘social’ nature of being human. Yet I don’t feel, as you seem to, that this concept invalidates a view that nudges can have a mass impact. Surely, the path to better understanding effective behavior change involves some sort of reconciliation between the two concepts?

  7. Mark Earls
    February 6, 2011

    Thanks, mate. It’s WIP at the moment. I’ll pass the comment on to the guys working on it!

  8. Mark Earls
    February 7, 2011

    Thanks, John.
    Fair enough challenge. Perhaps I need to clarify:
    It’s not that I think “nudging” can never work, it’s just that:
    a. the evidence for its efficacy as a tool for change is much weaker than widely suggested (not least because overcoming the defaults often requires highly intrusive and politically unpopular moves – e.g. smoking bans)
    b. this runs against some of BE’s most attractive features (to many new champions): it seems cheap(er than expensive alternatives) and easy (silver bullets are unlikely in the complex world of mass behaviour).
    c. Finally, the application of BE is primarily concerned with what the intervening organization can do to subjects’ behaviour and doesn’t begin to get to grips with the social nature of that behaviour. In particular it ignores how ideas and behaviour spread through populations (which more often than not is by socially-enabled diffusion). On the one hand, trying to unpick socially-shaped behaviours by shaping the choice-architecture of individuals seems to be pushing water up hill; on the other, not taking advantage of social diffusion seems to miss a big trick.
    So it’s not that it can’t or won’t work, it’s just that mostly it works much less well than we’d imagine but for very obvious reasons.

  9. Tom
    February 8, 2011

    In a past life – 2006-2009 – I quasi-consulted to the NHS and NHS Choices, and pushed “Herd” on various policy-making types, with little success.
    So I’m very glad to read about the sorts of issues you’re working on. Sounds like you’ve taken your thinking well beyond the BS that advertising has become.