Though President Obama won reelection decisively, he won't have much time to celebrate. Many of the nation's problems -- stimulating employment, reducing the deficit, controlling health-care costs, and improving the quality of education -- are very serious, and some of them must be addressed with great urgency. And none of these problems can be addressed simply by waving a magic government wand. To a significant degree, they all involve understanding what motivates current practices -- of business-people, financiers, doctors, patients, teachers, students -- and what levers we may be able to use to change those practices.
Historically, when the need has arisen to change behavior, political leaders have turned to economists. That's one reason why presidents have a Council of Economic Advisers. When economists speak, presidents listen. And when economists have the president's ear, all their whispers are predicated on a set of assumptions about human behavior. Whether it's increasing GDP, reducing unemployment, sustaining Social Security, making sure people are financially prepared for retirement, or stabilizing the financial sector, economists commonly hold certain beliefs. They will for example argue that people are motivated by self-interest and are rational calculators of their interests, and that the most effective way to get people to change the way they behave is by creating the right material incentives.
Now, people are sometimes rational calculators, but often they are not. And self-interest and incentives certainly matter, but they aren't all that matters. The perspective of economists is importantly incomplete, sometimes even misguided.
Read this article, which I consider decisive, about the importance of Psychology to Public Policy: CouncilPsychologicalAdvisers