Science of behavior change

Course content

Over the last 30 years, behavioral scientists have gained a deeper understanding of what motivates people, how they process information, and what non-economic features of the choice environment influence decisions. Many of their insights challenge traditional assumptions such as rationality, self-interest, time consistency. This research program (sometimes called “Behavioral Economics” or "Psychology and Economics") has shed light on how people’s decisions deviate from “optimal” choices as well as the consequences of such deviations. But, how we can use this knowledge? How can we get people to save more money, eat healthy foods and engage in healthy behaviors, and more generally make better choices?
This course allows the student to develop a hands-on approach by learning and applying the methods of behavioral economics and more importantly, how it can be harnessed by suitably designing contexts to “nudge” choice. We will review research on human decision making from psychology, political science, organizational behavior and economics and we will look for easy‐to‐implement solutions. At the end of this course, students are supposed to become “choice architects” able to identify human biases and creatively design interventions, policies or products that help people make better decisions.


BSc programme in Economics - recommended elective from the 3.year

MSc programme in Economics – elective course

Learning outcome

After completing the course, the student should be able to:


  • Review the most recent developments and theories of human decision-making both from Economics and Psychology.
  • Analyze the tools of behavioral science (namely incentive, regulation, persuasion and nudging) and they will compare their effectiveness to change specific behaviors.



  • Reflect on how experiments and randomized controlled trials work and why this methodology is critical for making inference about causal relationships.
  • Debate and discuss critically several interventions that have been conducted to change people’s behavior in the domain of energy efficiency, health and well-being, dishonesty, charitable giving, education and work performance.



  • Examine cases where people make decisions that are inconsistent with the assumptions of rational decision making and they will identify the consequences of this irrational behavior for the society.
  • Design experiments and develop policy intervention aiming at ameliorate societal well-being and improve people’s life.


Student participation will be expected and encouraged. An active discussion in class is essential for an effective peer learning. Students have to read the assigned papers before each lecture to be able to discuss it in class. Moreover, students will have homework and group work to do in preparation of the lectures.
The course is divided in two parts: in Part 1 “Principles and Methods” I will introduce the topic and present the relevant literature for the course; in Part 2 “Applications” we will discuss and analyze a different topic in each lecture.
In Part 2, for each lecture, we will have a group of students (5-10 students) in charge to:
1) Read the papers assigned and prepare a critical review (approximately 10 pages).
2) Prepare a presentation (approximately 45 minutes) and find a way to actively engage other students in the learning/discussion process.

Students have to read critically several papers. A preliminary reading list includes:

Johnson & Goldstein (2003). Do defaults save lives? Science.

Milkman et al. (2011). Using implementation intentions prompts to enhance influenza vaccination rates. PNAS.

Kling, Congdon, & Mullainathan (2011). Policy and choice: public finance through the lens of behavioral economics. Brookings Institution Press. Chapter 2.

The Behavioral Economic Guide 2015, Selected Behavioral Science Concepts pp. 28-46.

Ly & Soman (2013). Nudging Around The World.

Madrian (2014). Applying Insights from Behavioral Economics to Policy Design. Annual Review of Economics.

Croson & Gächter (2010). The science of experimental economics. Journalof Economic Behavior & Organization.

Falk & Heckman (2009). Lab experiments are a major source of knowledge in the social sciences. Science.

Pomeranz (2011) "Impact Evaluation Methods: A Brief Introduction to Randomized Evaluations in Comparison with Other Methods."

Haynes, Goldacre & Torgerson (2012). Test, learn, adapt: developing public policy with randomised controlled trials. BIT.

Loewenstein & Thaler (1989). Anomalies: intertemporal choice. The Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Chabris, Laibson, & Schuldt (2006). Intertemporal choice.The new Palgrave dictionary of economics.

What you need to know about willpower: The psychological science of self-control. American Psychological Association, 2012.

Danziger, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. PNAS.

Ly et al. (2013). A practitioner’s guide to nudging. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

Egan (2013) Nudge Database. Stirling Behavioural Science

Hausman & Welch (2010). Debate: To Nudge or Not to Nudge. Journal of Political Philosophy.

Schultz et al. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science.

Allcott (2011). Social norms and energy conservation. Journal of Public Economics.

Allcott & Rogers (2014). The Short-Run and Long-Run Effects of Behavioral Interventions: Experimental Evidence from Energy Conservation.The American Economic Review.

Charness & Gneezy (2009). Incentives to exercise. Econometrica.

Volpp et al. (2008). Financial incentive–based approaches for weight loss: a randomized trial. Jama.

Volpp et al. (2009). A randomized, controlled trial of financial incentives for smoking cessation. New England Journal of Medicine.

Giné, Karlan & Zinman (2010). Put your money where your butt is: a commitment contract for smoking cessation. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.

Mazar, Amir & Ariely (2008). The dishonesty of honest people: A theory of self-concept maintenance. Journal of marketing research.

Mazar & Zhong (2010). Do green products make us better people? Psychological science.

Shu et al. (2012). Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end. PNAS.

Bettinger et al. (2012). The Role of Application Assistance and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block Fafsa Experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Fryer et al. (2012). Enhancing the efficacy of teacher incentives through loss aversion: a field experiment. NBER.

Levitt et al. (2012). The behavioralist goes to school: Leveraging behavioral economics to improve educational performance. NBER.

Norton, Mochon & Ariely (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Ariely, Kamenica & Prelec (2008). Man's search for meaning: The case of Legos. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Kosfeld, Neckermann & Yang (2014). Knowing that you matter, matters! The interplay of meaning, monetary incentives, and worker recognition. ZEW-CEER.

Landry et al. (2006). Toward an Understanding of the Economics of Charity: Evidence from a Field Experiment. The Quarterly journal of economics.

Falk (2007). Gift exchange in the field. Econometrica.

Breman (2011). Give more tomorrow: Two field experiments on altruism and intertemporal choice. Journal of Public Economics.

Madrian & Shea (2001). The Power of Suggestion: Inertia in 401 (k) Participation and Savings Behavior. The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Thaler & Benartzi (2004). Save more tomorrow™: Using behavioral economics to increase employee saving. Journal of political Economy.

Choi, Laibson & Madrian (2009). Mental Accounting in Portfolio Choice: Evidence from a Flypaper Effect. American Economic Review.

Gerber & Rogers (2009). Descriptive social norms and motivation to vote: everybody's voting and so should you. The Journal of Politics.

Nickerson & Rogers (2010). Do you have a voting plan? Implementation intentions, voter turnout, and organic plan making. Psychological Science.

Bond et al. (2012). A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization. Nature.

Field et al. (2013). Does the classic microfinance model discourage entrepreneurship among the poor? Experimental evidence from India. The American Economic Review.

Mani et al. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science.

Cardenas & Carpenter (2008). Behavioural development economics: Lessons from field labs in the developing world. The Journal of Development Studies.

Lockton (2012). Cognitive biases, heuristics and decision-making in design for behaviour change. Heuristics and Decision-Making in Design for Behaviour Change.

Lockton, Harrison & Stanton (2010). The Design with Intent Method: A design tool for influencing user behaviour. Applied ergonomics.

The course requires that students read several scientific papers and have some knowledge of Microeconomics and Econometrics. Thus, it is recommended that students have followed or are following Micro III (C ).


The course consists of 2 hours of classes (lectures) every week and 2x2 hours every second week for 14 weeks.

Timetable and venue:
To see the time and location of classroom please press the link under "Se skema" (See schedule) at the right side of this page (16E means Autumn 2016).

You can find the similar information partly in English at
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-Select Period: “Efterrår/Autumn – Weeks 30-3”
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7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written examination, 2 hours under invigilation
Individual written closed-book exam at the computers of Copenhagen University
The exam assignment is in English and must be answered in English.
Without aids
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
External censorship
100% censorship
Criteria for exam assessment

Students are assessed on the extent to which they master the learning outcome for the course.

To receive the top grade, the student must be able to demonstrate in an excellent manner that he or she has acquired and can make use of the knowledge, skills and competencies listed in the learning outcomes.

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Lectures
  • 42
  • Preparation
  • 162
  • Exam
  • 2
  • English
  • 206