Individually and as a society, we are facing unprecedented challenges that emerge from the transition toward a sustainable society — from governments making arrangements to mitigate climate change to the very personal decisions we make about meat consumption and eco-friendly fashion. While the messages are out there — use public transportation, recycle plastic, keep the thermostat at 18 degrees — governments and communities around the globe have been struggling to engage their citizens to act for the public good of sustainability. Clearly, today’s policy initiatives are failing to create arrangements that support citizen involvement for the sake of society and the planet.
Resolving this problem has proven impossible when governing parties keep grounding their policies on classic models of governance that either leave it to people themselves what they want to do (libertarian) or direct their choice by the well-known carrot and stick (paternalistic). SYNCHRONY will create an innovative and integrated framework for the design of public policies that go beyond these equally low effective libertarian and paternalistic perspectives. Based on a radically different understanding of how empathic mechanisms can be optimized in autonomous choice and joint action, the aim of our program is to create new design principles for behavioral interventions and governance that reconcile personal and societal interest. The SYNCHRONY perspective is unique: for the first time, multidisciplinary expertise from leading scholars of public administration, behavioral science, law, ethics, political science, economics, design, and data science will come together to address the problem of involving people with the benefit of all while supporting and maintaining their personal autonomy.
The SYNCHRONY consortium will develop and test a new theory that brings together recent insights from embodied-situated cognitive science and multilayered horizontal governance. Our approach rests on three key principles:
- autonomy exists in people’s ability to act upon goals that emerge in person-environment interaction;
- people are inherently empathic in that embodied mechanisms enable them to predict and emotionally evaluate the consequences of their actions for others as if it concerned themselves; and
- empathic processes critically accompany opportunities for joint action.
Prosocial choice, then, is the result of an optimal balance between autonomy and empathy in weighing personal and societal benefit. To create policy arrangements informed by this theory, we will develop, test, and implement a framework that uses empathy prompts — cues that elicit empathic concerns and motivate the communal goal of protecting the environment.