The i-Frame and the s-Frame: How Focusing on Individual-Level Solutions Has Led Behavioral Public Policy Astray
41 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2022 Last revised: 30 Mar 2022
Date Written: March 1, 2022
An influential line of thinking in behavioral science, to which the two authors have long subscribed, is that many of society’s most pressing problems can be addressed cheaply and effectively at the level of the individual, without modifying the system in which individuals operate. Along with, we suspect, many colleagues in both academic and policy communities, we now believe this was a mistake. Results from such interventions have been disappointingly modest. But more importantly, they have guided many (though by no means all) behavioral scientists to frame policy problems in individual, not systemic, terms: to adopt what we call the “i-frame,” rather than the “s-frame.” The difference may be more consequential than those who have operated within the i-frame have understood, in deflecting attention and support away from s-frame policies. Indeed, highlighting the i-frame is a long-established objective of corporate opponents of concerted systemic action such as regulation and taxation. We illustrate our argument, in depth, with the examples of climate change, obesity, savings for retirement, and pollution from plastic waste, and more briefly for six other policy problems. We argue that behavioral and social scientists who focus on i-level change should consider the secondary effects that their research can have on s-level changes. In addition, more social and behavioral scientists should use their skills and insights to develop and implement value-creating system-level change.
Keywords: Behavioral public policy, behavioral economics, framing, nudge, climate change, obesity, addiction, behavior change
JEL Classification: D03, D04, H00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation