The executive order instead assumes the world is filled with actual Humans—creatures who have trouble with complex calculations, opt for the path of least resistance, and are influenced by subtle shifts in how information is relayed and framed. If government programs are to be effective, Obama’s order correctly assumes that they must be designed for these Humans, and not mythical Econs.
For example, in 2008 research by Richard Larrick and Jack Soll at Duke University showed that people confuse miles per gallon with gallons per mile and save less money on gas as a result. So the EPA changed its fuel-mileage stickers on new cars to help people understand fuel economy better: the labels now include estimates of dollars saved (or spent) compared to an average amount. This initiative, and others like it, is promising not just for car owners but for the environment, and shows that behavioral science is more than a mere add on.
The decision to use behavioral science to make federal agencies more efficient also builds on recent work from the White House’s Social and Behavioral Science Team (SBST). In its first year, the SBST produced a number of successes: they doubled the rate of service members signing up for a work place savings plan, increased college enrollment for low-income students, and helped individuals who had signed up but had not yet completed the enrollment application. Such initiatives are particularly impressive because unlike many government programs, they are cheap, relatively easy to implement, and backed by research.