Meet the IIU’s Behavioural Science Fellow: Nicholas Diamond

How would you explain the place for behavioural science within public policy to someone who had never heard about it before?

Public policy is what the government does in response to problems facing the public. To make public policy decisions as effective as possible, we must use the sciences of human behavior — for example, psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and quantitative methods — to inform these decisions. Science is not a solid body of knowledge but rather a set of tools for understanding the world. Using the tools of behavioral science will improve public policy outcomes for all of us.

In what way(s) do you believe the application of behavioural science can improve government policies and/or programs?

I believe that the application of behavioural science tools to government policies and/or programs can help us (A) uncover the greatest problems facing the public by means of large-scale data collection and thoughtful quantitative analysis, (B) optimize policy decisions to maximize their intended impact by drawing on theory and experiments rooted in the science of human behaviour, and © measure the results of these decisions, allowing us to improve policy impact over time.

What unique perspectives do you bring to this work, as someone entering the public service for the first time?

As a PhD student at the University of Toronto and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, I tried to aim at a big and complicated question about human psychology: how do we remember? Our memories — personal and collective — colour every moment of our lives. They guide our decisions and shape our predictions about the future. I believe that my expertise in the mechanisms of memory will help in the design and evolution of policy interventions aimed at influencing public behavior and decision-making. More broadly, in my academic work I focused on understanding memory, as it manifests in the real world. I always tried to pair rigorous theoretical and quantitative approaches, including a variety of computational and analytical techniques, with a focus on how memory works in our day-to-day lives outside the laboratory. I also tried to tackle the problem of human memory at multiple levels, from the brain, to the subjective experience of remembering, to population-level memory changes across the lifespan. I believe that meaningful and generalizable understanding of human behavior requires these ingredients — pairing rigorous scientific approaches with a focus on real-world outcomes, and addressing complicated problems at multiple levels. And I believe that this kind of understanding will help us make a larger and more positive impact in our policy decisions.

What attracted you to apply to the Fellowship program?

The Fellowship program seemed like the ideal opportunity for me to use my training as a scientist to try to improve the lives of many people, by improving the efficacy of public policy. I was excited and humbled by this possibility. I was also excited about the variety of expertise among the Fellows (and broader team) already in the Impact and Innovation Unit. I believe that this will be an incredibly rich and rewarding learning opportunity, and an opportunity to collaborate with smart people on hard and important problems.