“Simon Said,” We Didn't Jump

Published date01 March 2015
Date01 March 2015
Asmus Leth Olsen is assistant profes-
sor in the Department of Political Science at
the University of Copenhagen. His research
focuses on the effects of performance
information, political and administrative
psychology, and the application of experi-
mental methods in public administration.
His work has appeared in journals such as
Political Behavior, Public Choice, and
Judgment and Decision Making.
E-mail: ajlo@ifs.ku.dk
“Simon Said,” We Didn’t Jump 325
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 2, pp. 325–326. © 2015 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12330.
behavioral science in public administration? e name
is less important than the need for a clear and visible
psychology-based subf‌i eld of public administration
analogous to those in neighboring sciences.
How, then, do we come closer to placing a marking
stone between psychology and public administra-
tion?  e increasing use of experimental methods
in public administration paves the way for a close
methodological integration of the two f‌i elds: cognitive
and social psychology have long been def‌i ned by the
experimental paradigm. Clearly, this ef‌f ort needs to
be intensif‌i ed in order to make experimental designs
a mainstream tool for public administration scholars
and practitioners. We are slowly getting there.
e main obstacle seems to be a theoretical one. Public
administration needs to engage with theories and
established facts in psychology. Any scientif‌i cally sound
study of perception, attitude formation, or decision
making in our f‌i eld must in some sense correspond to
the thousands of articles published in psychology on
these concepts over the course of the last 60 years.  is
may sound like an unbearable and impossible task. On
the contrary, it has the potential to help sort out cur-
rent disputes and ambiguous f‌i ndings in our own f‌i eld.
If a set of f‌i ndings in public administration are consist-
ent with research in psychology, this will lend credibil-
ity to the underlying theory. On the other hand, if a
set of f‌i ndings are at odds with current psychology, this
will call for further investigation and require us to ask
and determine why some processes play out dif‌f erently
in an administrative context.
Simon noted how the “marking stone” should help
travelers in both directions: psychologists can also
learn something from public administration. Public
administration of‌f ers an empirical setting in which
attention, information processing, and decision mak-
ing can be studied across time, countries, levels of
government, and diverse policy areas. As a f‌i eld, we
of‌f er an exciting empirical setting to test psychological
theories that have proved valid in experimental labs
[T]he distance is so great between our present
psychological knowledge of the learning and choice
processes and the kinds of knowledge needed for
economic and administrative theory that a mark-
ing stone placed halfway between might help trave-
lers from both directions to keep to their courses.
—Herbert Simon (1955, 100)
Kenneth J. Meier recently argued in this journal
that the f‌i eld of public administration has
failed to confront old criticisms formulated
by Herbert Simon (Meier 2015). e year 2015 marks
60 years since Herbert Simon convincingly made the
case for one such criticism: the absence of a “marking
stone” to help connect current psychological research
and public administration. Sadly, today the distance
between research in psychology and in public admin-
istration seems greater than ever. Looking around in
the top journals of public administration, one can eas-
ily detect the absence of psychological theories. At the
same time, substantive questions in public administra-
tion are an infrequent topic for psychologists. By and
large, we conduct our research in separate worlds.
e disconnect stands in sharp contrast to psycholo-
gy’s relationship with public administration’s academic
neighbors. For instance, political psychology is today a
dynamic subf‌i eld in political science and has been the
leading substantive f‌i eld in popularizing experimental
methods among political scientists. Behavioral eco-
nomics, likewise, has successfully integrated insights
from cognitive and social psychology into the study of
markets and economic behavior. Here, the “marking
stone” is f‌i rmly placed: Simon is credited as one of the
drivers of this development, highlighted by his receipt
of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1978.
So why is there no administrative psychology? Or public
management psychology? Or a behavioral public admin-
istration to keep in line with the growing and vibrant
sister f‌i elds? Or, as the Nobel Prize–winning psycholo-
gist Daniel Kahneman (2011) would prefer, an applied
“Simon Said,” We Didn’t Jump
Asmus Leth Olsen
University of Copenhagen, Denmark

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT