Behavioral Economics and Public Policy: A Pragmatic Perspective

57 Pages Posted: 9 Feb 2015 Last revised: 22 Mar 2021

Date Written: February 2015


The debate about behavioral economics – the incorporation of insights from psychology into economics – is often framed as a question about the foundational assumptions of economic models. This paper presents a more pragmatic perspective on behavioral economics that focuses on its value for improving empirical predictions and policy decisions. I discuss three ways in which behavioral economics can contribute to public policy: by offering new policy tools, improving predictions about the effects of existing policies, and generating new welfare implications. I illustrate these contributions using applications to retirement savings, labor supply, and neighborhood choice. Behavioral models provide new tools to change behaviors such as savings rates and new counterfactuals to estimate the effects of policies such as income taxation. Behavioral models also provide new prescriptions for optimal policy that can be characterized in a non-paternalistic manner using methods analogous to those in neoclassical models. Model uncertainty does not justify using the neoclassical model; instead, it can provide a new rationale for using behavioral nudges. I conclude that incorporating behavioral features to the extent they help answer core economic questions may be more productive than viewing behavioral economics as a separate subfield that challenges the assumptions of neoclassical models.

Suggested Citation

Chetty, Raj, Behavioral Economics and Public Policy: A Pragmatic Perspective (February 2015). NBER Working Paper No. w20928, Available at SSRN:

Raj Chetty (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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