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Ways & Means Podcast Season Premiere: Dan Ariely & Government Innovation

September 14, 2016

One thing remains constant in our political discourse: talk of how much we need to change. Every four years, candidates for office make their pitch to voters, including a laundry list of things they promise to change once elected. Yet no matter who’s in the Oval Office, most procedures in government stay exactly the same.

In the premiere episode of its second season, the Sanford School’s Ways & Means podcast features a conversation with Professor Dan Ariely, an expert in policy, psychology and behavioral economics, to find out why it’s so hard for government to change.

[Read podcast transcript]

“There is this tremendous ability to criticize and also to feel regret if you do something differently,” Ariely said. “If you don’t do anything differently, it’s much much harder to criticize, and therefore harder to feel regret as well.”

Ariely noted that humans have a natural tendency to avoid regret by following the path of least resistance.

“If you don’t want to say, ever,' I made a mistake,' then you don’t do anything that exposes you to some risk,” he said.

Behavioral economists and in-house innovation labs are making it easier for government to change, Ariely said, because they understand why humans behave the way they do.

“Sometimes we have this idea of innovation of sitting in the chair and dreaming big ideas and coming up with a completely new approach to something, and it’s possible to do it this way, but it’s hard and infrequent,” he said. “The hacking approach is to say, let’s look at what we have already, and let’s try to understand the details of where this is not working, and try to think about how do we take each of the friction points and try to improve them.”

Listen to the full episode for more insight from Dan Ariely, as well as two examples of how innovation labs have helped departments of the federal government implement change.

Episode art by Duke senior Katherine M. Zhou.

Artwork - gov't innovation on whiteboard, teacher teaching students