UB philosopher working with World Bank on development policy

Ryan Muldoon, assistant professor of philosophy.

UB philosopher Ryan Muldoon is working with the World Bank to show how a richer view of human behavior can help forge the tools to improve development.

Release Date: February 29, 2016 This content is archived.

“It’s important for philosophy to take a more active role in the world around it. I like being able to do some work that has a direct impact. Typically, philosophers don’t have a role in policy making.”
Ryan Muldoon, assistant professor of philosophy
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The challenges of tackling the great human problems of economic development and eliminating poverty are too complicated for a single background or a single discipline, said World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in a 2012 New York Times interview.

Kim’s words help frame why for its 2015 World Development Report the World Bank sought the expertise of a multidisciplinary team comprised of microeconomists, behavioral economists, a political scientist, a sociologist and a University at Buffalo philosopher.

Ryan Muldoon, an assistant professor in the UB Department of Philosophy, is a core author of the 2015 World Development Report: Mind, Society and Behavior.

Each of the annual flagship World Development Reports is an international document that explores a specific aspect of development economics, a disciplinary branch that studies the economic processes in low-income countries.

The 2015 report in which Muldoon participated showed how a richer view of human behavior can help develop the tools to improve development.

Much of Muldoon’s work is on the theory of dynamics and the emergence of social norms, but his primary research focus is in political philosophy. He is publishing his first book, “Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World” with Routledge.

His work on social norms and work on diversity leading to different mental models drew the attention of the World Bank, as both social norms and mental models were important themes in the report.

Working with the other team members, the collective expertise helped the World Bank work toward a goal of better understanding the broader development context in order to draft and introduce innovative policy options that could improve the work of development professionals.

“One of the main messages of the development report that we’ve been working on institutionalizing within the World Bank and other organizations is that people are a lot more complicated than the policy models tend to assume,” says Muldoon. “In standard economic theory, consumers can take in unlimited information and have perfect ability to calculate what they should do, but that’s not how people operate and it’s important that we reflect this reality in how we think about development policy.”

He says people see evidence differently, depending on points of view that color how information might be interpreted.

Muldoon uses the example of hiring one’s friends and family to government positions.

“To our eyes, this is cronyism – a serious form of corruption which is clearly morally wrong,” he says.   “But in many contexts, this is seen as fulfilling one’s moral obligations to friends and family. Being aware of these differences can shape how we try and encourage better hiring practices.”

“A lot of times development professionals assume that people are not perfectly rational, but subject to biases and heuristics. That belief makes it easier to be increasingly paternalistic, like smart people telling poor people what they ought to be doing,” he says.  “But one of the things we try to emphasize is that all those biases and heuristics that happen within poorer populations happen at other levels as well.  And it’s important for us to be aware of our own biases and the social norms that might prevent us from being more effective with our policy roles.

“We need to better design our institutions so they mitigate rather than magnify those biases.”

His work with the World Bank today is a continuation of the 2015 World Development Report, yet people still wonder how he got involved and why the World Bank listens to a philosopher.

“It’s important for philosophy to take a more active role in the world around it,” he says. “I like being able to do some work that has a direct impact. Typically, philosophers don’t have a role in policy making, but this is a great opportunity to do something that is policy relevant and to be actively involved with making people’s lives better.”

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