By Sarah Stillman
on January 23, 2017
A week after Donald Trump’s election, a thirty-year-old cognitive scientist named Maya Shankar purchased a plane ticket to Flint, Michigan. Shankar held one of the more unorthodox jobs in the Obama White House, running the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, also known as the President’s “nudge unit.” When she launched the team, in early 2014, it felt, Shankar recalls, “like a startup in my parents’ basement”—no budget, no mandate, no bona-fide employees. Within two years, the small group of scientists had become a staff of dozens—including an agricultural economist, an industrial psychologist, and “human-centered designers”—working with more than twenty federal agencies on seventy projects, from fixing gaps in veterans’ health care to relieving student debt. Usually, the initiatives had, at their core, one question: Could the growing body of knowledge about the quirks of the human brain be used to improve public policy?
For months, Shankar had been thinking about how to bring behavioral science to bear on the problems in Flint, where a crisis stemming from lead contamination of the drinking water had stretched on for almost two years. She wondered if lessons from the beleaguered city could inform the Administration’s approach to the broader threat posed by lead across America—in pipes, in paint, in dust, and in soil. “Flint is not the only place poisoning kids,” Shankar said.
In recent years, behavioral science has become a voguish field. In 2002, the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work with a colleague, Amos Tversky, exploring the peculiarities of human decision-making in the face of uncertainty. (Their collaboration is the subject of a popular new book by Michael Lewis, “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.”) A basic premise of the discipline they’d helped to create was that people’s cognition is bias-prone, and susceptible to the cognitive equivalent of optical illusions. As a result, small tweaks of presentation or circumstance could make a major difference: if a judge rendered a decision about granting parole just before a meal, the inmate’s odds for a favorable outcome dipped to near zero; just after the judge ate, the chances rose to around sixty-five per cent. Grocers had learned that they could sell double the amount of soup if they placed a sign above their cans reading “limit of 12 per person.”
But, for all the field’s potential, its advances seemed mostly to have served the private sector. (And there they often veered toward sly consumer coercion.) A prominent exception was the “nudge,” a notion advanced by the legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein, now at Harvard Law School, and the University of Chicago behavioral economist Richard Thaler, in their 2008 best-seller “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” They stressed the role of “choice architecture”: the countless factors that coalesce around a given decision, often shaping outcomes in crucial, if barely visible, ways that could be rearranged. Sunstein and Thaler described the concept with public policy very much in mind. The subtle context in which we make choices, they theorized, could and should be stacked in favor of the social good. In the public sector, this meant gently nudging citizens toward certain choices, through techniques like automatic enrollment and reminder prompts, that take into account the fact that most of us, as Thaler told me, are “more like Homer Simpson than like Albert Einstein.”
President Obama saw the appeal of the nudge. In 2009, he tapped Sunstein to head the most bureaucratic-sounding of bureaucracies, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. During the next three years, Sunstein worked to bring behavioral insights into the government’s approach to policy. But the reach of these ideas remained limited. The nudge’s most appealing feature, its simplicity, was also among its constraints. Though the tweaks had vast potential implications, their small-bore design made it difficult to address the larger forces behind stubborn structural challenges. “We can’t take on some big problems, like climate change, and solve them entirely with nudges,” Thaler told me.
Shankar agreed, and, in her White House role, she wanted to test a wider range of tactics and delve deeper into problems. For the first two years, her team focussed mostly on programs that were narrowly defined, even though they could still affect thousands or millions of Americans: for instance, easing health-insurance enrollment, or helping veterans access education benefits. But Shankar was eager to see how her team might weigh in on more systemic, seemingly intractable problems associated with inequality, from homelessness to racial bias in policing. Flint seemed like a good place to find out. The city’s water crisis was tied up in deeply entrenched, even multigenerational, issues: “its racial history, its socioeconomic circumstances, all of it,” Shankar told me. Early last year, the team began gathering research relevant to Flint, drawing, in part, from public-health scholarship. In October, she and a colleague, an economist named Nate Higgins, visited the city for the first time, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, to ask residents about their evolving needs.
Then, on November 8th, Donald Trump was elected. For days, Shankar walked around shell-shocked. Her team, if it even continued to exist in the new Administration, would soon belong to one of the most anti-science President-elects in history, who has called climate change a “hoax,” spread unproven claims about vaccinations’ ties to autism, and mocked new brain-science-backed N.F.L. guidelines to prevent concussions, saying that football has grown “soft.”
In 2010, the United Kingdom became the first country to set up a government office devoted solely to making use of behavioral science. Backed by the new Conservative government, a hodgepodge crew of social scientists, psychologists, and data nerds, calling themselves the Behavioural Insights Team, tried to find opportunities for government savings and other improvements through simple tweaks. People were less tardy with their taxes, for instance, when they were shown that most of their neighbors paid on time. Many of the British team’s projects aimed to use behavioral research for social uplift. In one, it conducted a randomized controlled trial to determine which of eight different prompts was most effective in soliciting participation in organ donation. (The winning message: “If you needed an organ transplant would you have one? If so please help others.”)
More recently, the team addressed British doctors’ overprescribing of antibiotics, contacting outliers who’d written prescriptions at the highest rates. The letter it sent did little more than note the recipient’s status on the far end of the statistical spectrum, but the prescription rates dropped by three per cent during the next six months. Some critics dismissed such accomplishments as overhyped fluff; others warned of a rising nanny state. Even the team’s guiding mantra—“Make It Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely”—could be seen as nothing more than common sense.
Shankar got interested in the field as a teen-ager. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she once thought she’d become a classical violinist. (For several years, she was taught by Itzhak Perlman.) A hand injury derailed her musical aspirations, and, while recovering at home, in Connecticut, she happened upon a book by the psychologist Steven Pinker and became enamored of cognitive science. As an undergraduate at Yale, she conducted research on primates, travelling to a tropical island to study rhesus macaques, with the aim of mapping a feature of cognition known as “essentialism”: “Does a monkey know what makes a coconut a coconut, and an apple an apple?” (On the island, she learned to dodge monkey urine from the tree canopy overhead; the macaques carried a version of herpes B that could be lethal to humans.) Later, as a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral student at Oxford, she visited a famous flavor factory in Ohio, where she tested whether she could hijack the sensory perceptions of professional flavorists: giving them a lime-tinted beverage, say, that had the taste of tangerines.
After Shankar did her postdoctoral research, at Stanford’s Decision Neuroscience Lab, she began looking for a job. In the field of cognitive science, many of the opportunities for an aspiring researcher were of a particular type, geared toward helping to make big companies richer, or rich people thinner, or thin people more alluring on algorithm-based dating sites. Behavioral science’s bro-culture adaptations—the life hack, the quantified self—had proliferated. Shankar worried about her next steps. She didn’t want to spend her life in a suit, or in a lab, or on a remote island, dodging monkey excretions.
One day in 2012, she flew from California to a friend’s wedding in Connecticut. While there, she had tea with her college mentor, the Yale psychologist Laurie Santos. “I feel like the job I want doesn’t even exist,” Shankar told her. She added, sheepishly, “I guess I’ll go into consulting?”
Santos mentioned that she’d just returned from a conference, where she’d heard about the Department of Agriculture’s efforts to put behavioral science into practice to aid children from low-income families. Through a small nudge—a government initiative that automatically enrolled kids in free federal school-lunch programs, by simply cross-checking their eligibility for preëxisting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (snap) benefits—hundreds of thousands of children were fed, without the shame and the bureaucratic hassle that kept parents from signing them up.
The idea that a minor government modification could decrease a child’s hunger—and perhaps, in turn, improve his or her trajectory in school—stuck with Shankar. It was simple, even obvious, as the best behavioral insights often are. Later, she learned that the Department of Agriculture supported a whole slew of behavioral projects. One, conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, found that if school cafeterias rebranded plain vegetables with catchy names—X-Ray Vision Carrots, say, or Power Punch Broccoli—consumption soared.
Shankar felt that she’d found her path. She reached out to Sunstein, who had returned to Harvard, and asked if he knew of any openings in government. He gave her the name of a contact at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Shankar sent what seemed like a long-shot pitch to the deputy director, Tom Kalil, to join the office and find ways to weave behavioral insights into the heart of public policy. They met, and, to her surprise, Kalil hired her as a senior science adviser. Shankar was twenty-six.
She moved to Washington, D.C., in early 2013, leaving her bike and her books in California, “in case things didn’t work out.” Even before her new job began, she e-mailed Kalil with the outlines of a broader aspiration. “One of my more ambitious, longer-term goals,” she wrote, “is to begin laying down the foundation for the creation of a U.S.-based behavioral insights team.”
By the start of 2014, with guidance from some of the field’s big names, Shankar had recruited her first five experts from academic institutions and nonprofits. They began working closely with a growing list of agencies, including the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, and the Treasury.
That year, the team sought to put together small collaborations that could garner quick results. It formed a partnership with the Department of Education and a nonprofit, uAspire, to find a way to lessen “summer melt.” Typically, twenty to thirty per cent of students in urban districts who were accepted to college didn’t matriculate, owing to last-minute burdens like financial-aid deadlines. The team helped devise a pilot program in which students were sent eight personalized text messages over the summer, prompting them to follow through. Matriculation rates increased by several percentage points. Shankar’s group offered to help other agencies with similar tweaks, to facilitate microloans to farmers, or to reduce the overprescribing of antipsychotics and other drugs by Medicare providers.
Then, on September 15, 2015, President Obama gave the team the ultimate nudge: an unusual Executive Order, titled “Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People.” It formalized the team as an official entity, and urged all federal agencies to “develop strategies for applying behavioral science insights to programs and, where possible, rigorously test and evaluate the impact of these insights.”
Four months later, the President declared a state of emergency in Flint. Shankar saw her chance to test the mandate’s reach.
Lead, Shankar’s team quickly learned, represents a quintessential behavioral challenge. First, it tends to lurk quietly; in water, the potent neurotoxin is often invisible. After a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River, in 2014, brownish liquid began flowing from many taps. The discoloration came from other contaminants, like iron. The lead contamination resulted from the corrosion of old pipes and plumbing fixtures, after the city failed to properly treat the water. E. coli, carcinogens, and bacteria causing Legionnaires’ disease were also found in alarming quantities. The stark visuals had a strange behavioral upside, helping to provoke national outrage in a way that an invisible scourge rarely can.
In the bloodstream, lead disappears quickly, but bones can harbor the toxin for decades. In children, lead exposure can impair basic brain development, causing impulsivity, anxiety, depression, and diminished I.Q. In the elderly, it can prompt memory loss, and pregnant women can suffer miscarriages and stillbirths. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint-based pediatrician who’d helped expose the city’s problem, told me, “There is no safe lead level, even for adults.”
Shankar understood that Flint’s water crisis went beyond the challenge of protecting locals from lasting bodily harm. It also meant repairing trust, or earning it anew, among residents who’d been told by government officials—often repeatedly, and emphatically—that Flint’s water was safe to drink. As the city’s lead issues evolved, the responsibility for obtaining safe drinking water had fallen in no small part on residents. Many neighborhoods were still waiting for their old lead pipes to be swapped out, and some people perceived inequities in the replacement process. (Only in mid-December did Congress agree to a hundred-and-seventy-million-dollar relief package to help speed up those repairs, and Flint’s recovery as a whole.) In the meantime, residents would have to keep drinking bottled water, or else install special filters at home, which required vigilant maintenance.
Shankar’s team had begun working with the E.P.A. shortly after the President declared a state of emergency, helping to redesign the water-safety fact sheets that residents received. The purpose of Shankar’s trip to Flint in October was to see how the team might take the partnership further. She and her colleague, Higgins, toured a water-processing plant and met with faith-based groups and Red Cross aides. And they visited an elderly man named Gerald as he tried to understand what E.P.A. workers were doing at his house testing his tap. (They’d come by many times before, he said, showing Shankar and her teammate a binder full of documents. But the communications from various agencies were often contradictory, he said, and many residents were left confused.)
Gerald’s chief concern turned out to be his exorbitant bill. Flint has some of the highest water rates in the nation. As the situation unfolded, families were forced to pay outrageous amounts for water that was still unsafe to drink unfiltered. Shankar kept hearing about other concerns in the community: the threat of widespread evictions, tied in part to these large bills; children’s malnutrition, which quickens the body’s uptake of lead; undocumented immigrants who feared opening the door when E.P.A. officials came by with water-safety information. “It pretty quickly became apparent that there was more at stake,” Shankar told me.
On Shankar’s return to Flint, in November, she wanted to introduce new behavioral tools to leaders in the city, and to engage with them on some of the more vexing challenges, like combatting the spread of misinformation. The team was still working toward its goal of coming up with science-backed interventions that could unfold over the next several years. She and a colleague, Will Tucker-Ray, planned to start at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, a Catholic congregation that Shankar had visited on her previous trip, and which served hundreds of Flint’s Latino families. Disturbingly, a portion of the city’s undocumented residents still hadn’t even heard about the lead contamination. Advisories about the crisis often circulated only in English. Early on, bottled water and filters had been distributed by uniformed National Guardsmen, some of whom had demanded to see a driver’s license from recipients; though the tactic stopped, the fear had not.
Shankar and Tucker-Ray arrived in Detroit on Saturday night. The next morning, at dawn, they drove to Flint. Tucker-Ray, who’d joined the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team at its inception, is also a managing director of ideas42, a nonprofit “behavioral-design lab” that applies research from the field to social issues, such as intimate-partner violence and income inequality. The pair got to Our Lady of Guadalupe just in time for the Spanish-language service. Incense swirled. Elderly ladies shook orange maracas, crooned, and swayed. Toddlers squealed in their parents’ arms, and Shankar wondered whether lead might be present in their blood or bones.
Shankar and Tucker-Ray had stayed up late, working on their PowerPoint slides. The plans for the weekend were still a bit murky. “I’m eager to see how this goes,” Shankar whispered.
Standing in the nave of the church Shankar looked thoroughly Californian, in a stretchy bright-red runner’s jacket and purple tennis shoes. (The nickname her team members had given her, Sneakers, reflected her commitment to pragmatism in her fashion choices.) Tucker-Ray, in contrast, wore wool slacks and a narrow gray tie. Their host, Aurora Sauceda, was an active member of the church, as well as a co-founder of Latinos United for Flint, a group that started amid the water crisis. After Mass, she grabbed Shankar and Tucker-Ray and pulled them into a small church classroom. She wanted them to hear the worried voices of undocumented parishioners who’d just filed in for their weekly English lesson.
“What’s going to happen with the water now that we have a new President?” one woman asked, later explaining that her hair had fallen out in clumps at the height of the water crisis. She couldn’t afford to wash her hair with bottled Evian. “Do you think we’ll still have the same help?”
A young man said, “I think the concern is that because we’re a Hispanic community we’re not going to have the same help.” His parents had brought him to Michigan from Mexico, at the age of ten. More than a decade later, in 2012, he’d become a beneficiary of Obama’s program for undocumented immigrants who had come to the country as children; it protected him from deportation, if only temporarily. Now, he said, besides the hazardous water, he feared immigration raids. “They already have all my information,” he explained. “I don’t have any criminal record. . . . I don’t have any tickets, no drinking and driving.” But he was concerned about his children, who, after they saw Trump on TV talking about mass deportations, asked him, “What’s going to happen to us?”
We trudged across the parking lot to meet others in the church cafeteria. As Sauceda translated the taunts one parishioner had received (“I’m going to call the police and let everyone know you’re illegal and they’re going to throw your ass back to Mexico”), she began to tear up.
Sauceda had invited several church members to an informational meeting with Shankar and Tucker-Ray: a parish deacon, an immigration lawyer, and a local E.P.A. representative named Ramon Molina. Burly and affable, Molina held what Shankar called “trusted-messenger status.” He’d taught social studies in Flint’s public schools for more than thirty years, and many at Our Lady knew his face better than the mayor’s. (His family had helped found the church, in the nineteen-fifties, after arriving from Mexico.) When the crisis hit, he was retired from teaching. But the E.P.A. had lured him back to work, hoping that his presence might help among Flint’s Spanish speakers.
“Nothing we’re about to say is a panacea,” Shankar said to the group, who sat around a table in a classroom. She and Tucker-Ray passed out hard copies of their PowerPoint slides, before she launched into Tool No. 1: “implementation prompts.” When trying to get people to sign up for flu shots, she explained, researchers discovered that return rates jumped when people wrote down when they would go to the doctor or the pharmacy, and how they would get there, in a pledge of sorts.
“Sometimes we just need a simple reminder to act on the things we want to act on,” Shankar said. When it came to the water crisis, she suggested, the church could give every family a handout after services, asking them to note when, where, and how they planned to change their filters, and perhaps indicating whether they wanted to receive reminders by text message.
Next, Shankar described concepts like “social norming”—using subtle forms of peer pressure to, for example, encourage hand-washing, which many residents had come to fear. She and Tucker-Ray eventually arrived at their main issue: trust-building. How could government regain the city’s faith after such an unforgivable breach?
Blame tainted nearly every arm of government, from Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, and his Department of Environmental Quality, to the flat-footed E.P.A., to local elected leaders. So Shankar listed a set of tools for reversing at least some of the damage, including extreme “operational transparency” about remedial actions.
Shankar and Tucker-Ray suggested something along the lines of Domino’s popular Pizza Tracker, which allowed customers to follow their pizza from the oven to their door, and worry less about whether, say, the pepperoni—or, in this case, the overdue lead-pipe replacements—had been forgotten.
The group seemed receptive, but there were murmurs of skepticism. Molina said his anger about the toxic water still felt raw, even now that he’d gone to work for the E.P.A. “As Joe Citizen, I was, like, ‘I got screwed!’ ” he said. “My grandkids were drinking that water. Someone lied to me.” Here, behavioral tweaks met their limits: if a government isn’t worthy of trust, no savvy intervention can change that. And a nudge cannot fix a bankrupt policy; worse, it might help whitewash the problem.
Shankar and Tucker-Ray nodded sympathetically. The thornier issues would take time, money, and political will to fix. But, in the meantime, didn’t it still make sense to debunk the misinformation that had been spread? Early on, some Flint officials had urged citizens to boil their water to get rid of bacteria—a recommendation that put residents at greater risk for lead poisoning, since boiling can concentrate the metal. How could Our Lady help reverse that misstep?
Myth-busting easily backfires, Shankar told the group. “It’s much better to replace a lie or a mistruth with a memorable and incompatible truth,” she added. Personal stories work well. So, too, the team’s PowerPoint read, do “repetition, rhymes, songs.”
When it was time to wrap up, Shankar returned to this idea, intrigued by what she’d learned on her previous trip about Sauceda’s efforts to use song and dance in her day job, as an addiction-prevention specialist. “We should just try to write a song around correct water use!” Shankar said. “I’d love to work with someone on your team to figure out what that looks like. I can’t say I have any songwriting talents.”
“Convince the mariachis to come over?” Molina said. Flint’s mariachi band was playing that night at a local restaurant.
A catchy tune could clarify the details of the E.P.A. water-safety literature, Shankar pointed out. “Imagine you’re in the kitchen,” she said, “and you’re a little confused, like, ‘What did I read on the fact sheet?’ But then you just recite the song in your head and you’re, like, ‘Oh, that’s right!’ ” People laughed appreciatively.
“We will not accept anything less than a No. 1 iTunes hit,” she joked.
The group soon left for the restaurant, where colorful parrots in cowboy hats hung from rafters. The mariachis—who turned out to be local college kids, some with bushy red beards and ruddy cheeks—played impressive renditions of Mexican classics like “Cielito Lindo.” When the time came for the final song, Sauceda cried out, “_Otra! Otra! _”
“Lock the doors!” Molina cried, urging the band to keep playing.
As the musicians packed up, Sauceda brought the band’s director over. “This is Maya. She’s from the White House,” Sauceda explained. “And she needs us to write a hit song about the water crisis—better than Taylor Swift, O.K.?”
Social science—or, more accurately, in some cases, pseudoscience—has a fraught history when it comes to communities of color. Eugenics; phrenology; the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. It’s easy to grasp why, especially in many disenfranchised neighborhoods, the sudden appearance of two cheerful behavioral scientists doling out help “for the good of the American people” (a phrase of which Shankar is fond) might be met with suspicion. Such wariness hovered over a morning meeting that Shankar and Tucker-Ray had on their second day, at the Genesee County health department.
The department’s offices are next to a desolate parking lot. At around nine-thirty, a half-dozen community leaders—from a black church, a nearby community college, and elsewhere—filed into a conference room, taking their places around a long rectangular table. Some seemed guarded, but all were eager for a White House ear. Kent Key, the director of the Office of Community Scholars and Partnerships at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, said, “What the narrative has been about Flint is that we were this little poor, docile black community that didn’t have a voice, and needed someone to come and fix it for them.” On the contrary, he stressed, locals had been fighting the switch in the water source long before it happened. “When a community does everything right by the book,” he went on, “and your voice is still disregarded? To me, that speaks to a larger historical, systemic issue of the disregard for communities, particularly communities of color.”
Key wore an ensemble of maroon slacks, maroon socks, a maroon turtleneck, and a maroon velour blazer, with a light-maroon scarf. Growing up in Flint, he said, his grandfather would take him fishing in the Flint River, where they’d catch buffalo fish, which he’d always toss back. “As an eight-year-old boy, I knew I couldn’t eat anything that came out of the Flint River,” he said. “As a child, it was in my mind that the water wasn’t good.” Many locals knew this, too, he explained. They’d repeatedly voiced their concern, on the steps of the capitol and at Governor Snyder’s office, to no avail.
A church elder named Sarah Bailey soon chimed in. “It started with the decision that this community was inept and unable to govern itself,” she said. In 2011, Governor Snyder invoked a controversial state law and placed Flint under emergency management. A few years later, the city’s emergency manager switched Flint’s water source, a move that was driven, Bailey said, by “the bottom line.” (Two former state-appointed emergency managers have since faced criminal indictments, as have others involved in the water crisis.) She went on, “It took away our right to self-determination, self-governance, and democracy.”
Later, Key shared a personal story about the son of a family friend who had begun acting out in school. The boy’s mother had come to Key for help. When Key asked the boy what was going on, he replied, “Well, they said I’m not going to be smart anyway.”
“These kids are internalizing the messages about how the lead is affecting them,” Key said. “If there is a direct correlation between lead exposure and the cognitive ability to handle stressful situations in a reasonable way, and we see more violent trends, can you imagine the pipeline of youth who are going to be going into the corrections system?”
When the meeting concluded, Shankar shook hands and exchanged business cards with the others. It wasn’t immediately clear what had come out of the gathering. But, as she and Tucker-Ray left for their next appointment, Shankar began contemplating aloud the possibilities. She said to Tucker-Ray, “Did you see how my eyes widened when he said that thing about the kids giving up because they think they’re going to be dumb?”
When she was at Stanford, Shankar had met Carol Dweck, a pioneer in the psychological study of motivation. Dweck’s most central theory was simple: youth who were taught to regard their brains as a muscle, developed through hard work—a “growth mind-set”—fared far better than those who’d been taught that intelligence was a fixed trait, like eye color. In 2013, Shankar had co-hosted a conference on the subject at the White House. Now she wondered if she might be able to entice experts in the field to collaborate with schools, clinics, and childcare centers in Flint.
After a long day with Shankar and Tucker-Ray, I stopped by the home of a friend. I’d first met Greg Mansfield, who’d worked on the assembly line at a General Motors plant for nearly four decades, while reporting on another story, in 2014. We’d developed an odd relationship, mostly built around ribbing each other over politics. During last year’s Presidential debates, we’d exchanged dozens of texts: “I hate to say it but she lies!!!!” he’d written on one occasion, followed by “He is kicking her ASS!!!!” Mansfield had taken the night off from his usual 4 p.m.- to-1:30 a.m. shift to cook me spicy chili.
In the kitchen, Mansfield stood over a big silver pot and introduced his neighbor Jim Palmer, who made a living drilling wells for local residents. He had just returned from a deer-hunting expedition, and he sipped from a can of Budweiser. He asked why I’d come to Flint. “I’m following this behavioral-sciences team from the White House,” I said. “They’re trying to figure out how to use insights about real human behavior to do a better job with public policy—stuff like the water crisis here.”
They looked at each other. “Oh, you mean like brainwashing?” Palmer asked.
“Well, I guess they’d probably call it more like applying research aimed to make policies better and cheaper and more effective.” I searched for an example. “Like, instead of just telling veterans that they’re eligible for certain benefits, they told them they’d earned those benefits, and suddenly lots more of them tried to enroll.”
“Yeah,” Palmer said. “Brainwashing.”
Mansfield and Palmer were eager to talk politics. Michigan had helped swing the election in Trump’s favor, a stark reversal from 2008 and 2012, when Obama won the state handily.
The Obama campaign had embraced behavioral science’s possibilities, consulting with a group of leading academics and practitioners calling themselves the Consortium of Behavioral Scientists. The team helped the campaign with get-out-the-vote techniques and advised Obama officials on how to quash false claims that the President was a Muslim. (Instead of saying, “No, Obama is not a Muslim”—which simply increased association by repetition—it was better to counter with “Actually, Obama is a Christian.”)
In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton’s campaign seemed stuck in perpetual myth-busting mode. Even when James Comey, the director of the F.B.I., reaffirmed, two days before the election, that the candidate should not face criminal charges tied to her e-mails, the effect of the statement was exactly what Shankar had put forth at the Flint church: debunking a myth often does little more than reinforce it. (“Within hours, a listener may not remember if it’s true or false,” Shankar had said. “It just feels recognizable.”)
The President-elect, it turned out, had a gift for the behavioral arts. He intuitively grasped “loss aversion” (our tendency to give more weight to the threat of losses than to potential gains), and perpetually maximized “nostalgia bias” (our tendency to remember the past as being better than it was). He made frequent subconscious appeals to “cultural tightness” (whereby groups that have experienced threats to their safety tend to desire strong rules and the punishment of deviance), and, perhaps most striking, his approach tapped into what psychologists call “cognitive fluency” (the more easily we can mentally process an idea, such as “Make America great again” or “Lock her up!,” the more we’re prone to retain it). Even his Twitter game was sticky: “Crooked Hillary!” “build the wall.” (As Shankar said, repetition works.)
Shankar didn’t know whether her team would survive in the age of Trump. And, if it did, how would it be used?
As President, Trump may be attracted to the team’s knack for cost-cutting. One of its early pilot studies, in 2015, found that the government could garner an extra $1.59 million from private venders in a three-month window just by tweaking a rebate form to encourage honesty. And the team had worked extensively on projects that served many people in Trump’s base of support, from veterans to small farmers to job-seekers.
But Shankar and her team’s desire to test more ambitious interventions—those exploring the intergenerational roots of poverty and inequality, and those inviting a broader range of voices to frame solutions to problems—will likely go unfulfilled. Many people on her team will remain in government, working for various agencies, where Shankar hopes that they will press on in using behavioral science. But the fate of the Executive Order laying out the team’s mission is uncertain. The group had just begun exploring ways to help bring about police reforms, and working to create new materials for post-prison reëntry programs, drawing on input from formerly incarcerated individuals. They had ideas, too, for efforts to keep expanding access to school lunches, student-debt relief, and Obamacare.
In August, Cass Sunstein published a book, “The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science,” in which he reminded readers that choice architecture is value-neutral, ripe for democrats and demagogues. “There is no question that certain nudges, and certain kinds of choice architecture, can raise serious ethical problems,” he writes. “Hitler nudged; so did Stalin.”
Trump’s vision for behavioral science in the White House is anyone’s guess. Sunstein’s frequent collaborator, Richard Thaler, told me that he often signs their nudge book with the admonition “Nudge for good.” But he conceded that it is “meant as a plea, rather than an expectation.”
As their last day in Flint drew to a close, Shankar and Tucker-Ray hurried to a final meeting. They had arranged to talk with a disabled Gulf War veteran and community activist named Art Woodson, who didn’t think much of the federal government. At a local municipal building, where an enlarged photograph of corroded lead pipes adorned one wall, Woodson told Shankar about his worry that local kids would give up when lead’s symptoms surfaced, or even before. “What I see,” he said, “is hopelessness.”
Shankar peppered Woodson with questions: What kinds of things had he heard from kids who knew they’d been exposed to lead? How were parents and teachers explaining the risks to kids who had elevated lead levels? For more than an hour, they brainstormed, before Shankar and Tucker-Ray readied for their drive back to the airport.
As the pair collected their things, Woodson offered them a box of Flint fried chicken. “I’m a vegetarian,” Tucker-Ray said, apologetically. “So am I,” Shankar said.
“See, that’s what I’m talking about—y’all are D.C. people,” Woodson said. “I’ll eat a cow.”
As Woodson’s trust meter appeared to dip, he asked some final, pointed questions: When President Obama left office, people like Shankar and her team would have to leave, too, right? And then what?
Agencies on the ground in Flint expected at least some of their work to continue. “Look, at this point, we’re trying to run out the tape,” Shankar said, of her own team. “I’m not willing to give up until the last day.”
“Can you hurry up and push it out there?” Woodson said, of the team’s findings in Flint. If their recommendations were already in progress, he said, Trump might prove less willing to “take something away from the kids.”
Shankar promised that she’d sleep only a few hours a night until it was time for her to go.
Woodson nodded. Then he added, “Let me do a mental-health check on y’all—how are you feeling, actually, speaking from a personal perspective?”
“As a person,” Shankar said—she shot Tucker-Ray a look, then came uncorked—“I feel incredibly shitty, all the time, since the election.”
Woodson hollered with delight. “Wow!” he whooped. “See, I trust you now! What you just said? I’ve got your back! Somebody mess with you, you make sure you call me.” He continued, “You being you, that’s how you win people’s trust. . . . I’m telling you, if you want to get through to the people in the city of Flint, do what you just did and you will have them like—what’s that dude, the pied piper with the flute?”
“But here’s the thing, Art,” Shankar explained. “We can’t say that stuff as government—we can only say that stuff as individual people.”
Woodson shook his head. “But you know what? That’s the problem. That’s why Donald Trump won, because he said things that the government normally doesn’t say. He said it. By you saying what you just did, that’s what people want. People want realness.”
Before their flight, Shankar and Tucker-Ray debriefed in their hotel lobby. Shankar called Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who had sounded the alarm about the lead contamination, and who is now working hard to address its repercussions. The doctor stressed that the consequences would be measured not in years but in decades. “This isn’t like a hurricane or a flood you can just clean up,” she said. The only remedies, in fact, were resources that would be imperilled under Trump: stringent environmental accountability, as well as funding for maternal health care, childhood nutrition, early-childhood education, and other programs thought to mitigate lead’s long-term effects.
In the lobby bar, Fox News flashed announcements of Trump’s Cabinet appointments. I asked Shankar what she would remember the most from the trip. “That interaction with Art,” she said. “I’ll never forget that.” Then she wrapped her parka tightly around her and headed out into the cold.
The next day, Shankar reached out to a growth-mind-set expert with whom she’d planned the White House conference, back in 2013; soon, they had assembled a national working group to mine the psychological literature for ideas to share in Flint, and in other cities experiencing lead poisoning. Shankar called Kent Key, in Flint, and he mentioned his idea for a program to help the city’s youth take a more proactive role in the water crisis. Perhaps the research could be applied there? These were the faintest beginnings of what Shankar had long imagined, a process that took behavioral interventions beyond the nudge, and made bureaucracies capable of listening as much as prescribing.
The day after Christmas, Shankar went to her D.C. office to start packing up her belongings. She peeled birthday cards off the walls and pulled out the high heels she had kept beneath her desk, for days when she couldn’t get away with purple sneakers. She had only just begun a harried job search, and she wasn’t sure what she’d do next. But she hoped she could find a way to stay involved in Flint. She’d already received an invitation from the county health department to return for its annual conference in May, as the closing speaker, addressing the topic of “combatting distrust in the community.”
Making good on her promise to Art Woodson, Shankar stayed in her office until she couldn’t any longer. In early January, she took the last box of mementos home. Someone would come by soon to retrieve a piece of memorabilia known among White House staffers as a “jumbo”: a giant framed photograph of Shankar and her team with President Obama in the Oval Office. It was the only item still hanging on the wall.
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