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Daniel J. Acland

Assistant Professor of Practice in Public Policy

Daniel J. Acland


Dan Acland is a behavioral economist whose research focuses on the theory, practice, and political science of behavior change. In addition he is a specialist in benefit-cost analysis.  Past work has included a field experimental test of behavioral-economic theories of habit-formation and health-related behavior change, as well as a large-scale online experiment on the effectiveness of voluntary self-control mechanisms for online game players. Recent and ongoing projects include work on the implications of behavioral economics for government paternalism, an attempt to establish a more robust definition of benefit-cost analysis, and survey-experiments on confirmation bias and the political psychology of Libertarian Paternalism. Professor Acland teaches two master's level classes in benefit-cost analysis, on focused on practice, the other on principles. In addition he advises master's capstone students and teaches both the graduate and undergraduate courses in microeconomics.


Areas of Expertise

  • Benefit-Cost Analysis
  • Behavioral Economics
  • Behavior Change
  • Paternalism
  • Political Psychology

Last updated on 12/12/2018

Working Papers

  • United States of Dissatisfaction: Confirmation Bias Across the Partisan Divide

    Co-author: Daniel J. AclandAmy E. Lerman

    GSPP Working Paper (April 2018)

    Party polarization is a central feature of American political life, and a robust literature has shown that citizens engage in partisan-confirmation bias when processing political information. At the same time, however, recent events have highlighted a rising tide of anti-government populism that manifests on both sides of the aisle. In fact, data show that large proportions of both Democrats and Republicans hold negative views of government. Using an original set of survey experiments, we examine the psychology of public-sector evaluation. We find that citizens engage in a process of confirmation bias when they encounter new information, which is driven not by party and ideology but by beliefs about the quality and efficiency of government. Taken together, our findings suggest important limitations to citizens’ capacity to learn about public administration, and expand our understanding of what drives confirmation bias with respect to public and private service provision.

  • Self-control and Demand for Commitment in Online Game Playing: Evidence from a Field Experiment

    GSPP Working Paper (April 2018)

    We conduct an experiment on an online game, exploring the effect on gameplay behavior of voluntary commitment devices that allow players to limit their gameplay. Approximately 25% of players use the devices. Median and 75th percentile device users use devices approximately 60% and 100% of the time respectively. Device users play longer and more frequently than others. Device usage decreased session length and session frequency for device users by 11.3% and 30.7% respectively, while increasing weeks of play by 11.5%. Our results are consistent with some players having self-identified self-control problems, leading to longer and more frequent play than they would prefer, and to demand for commitment, and also with commitment devices creating a more rewarding experience, leading to longer-lasting involvement with the game. Our results suggest incentivizing or requiring commitment devices in computer games.

Selected Publications

  • The Case for Ends Paternalism: Extending Le Grand and New’s Framework for Justification of Government Paternalism

    Dan Acland (2018), Review of Behavioral Economics: Vol. 5: No. 1, pp 1-22.

    Le Grand and New, in their recent book, “Government Paternalism: Nanny State or Helpful Friend,” present a novel definition of paternalism and a framework for thinking about whether any given paternalistic policy can be considered justifiable. I show that their framework is flawed in that it restricts justifiable paternalism to that which is intended to alter individuals’ judgment about the means they use to pursue their self-determined ends. I show that the principles they use to justify certain kinds of means paternalism also justify certain kinds of ends paternalism. In particular, when there is a body of rigorous social-science evidence that individuals select ends that they themselves, if they had adequate information or experience would prefer not to pursue, and when other conditions are met, ends paternalism may be considered to improve the wellbeing of the individual as determined by the individual themselves. I present examples of policies that could be justified under this framework, and offer cautionary notes.

  • Naiveté, projection bias, and habit formation in gym attendance

    Acland, D., & Levy, M. R. (2015). Management Science, 61(1), 146-160.

    We implement a gym-attendance incentive intervention and elicit subjects' predictions of their postintervention attendance. We find that subjects greatly overpredict future attendance, which we interpret as evidence of partial naiveté with respect to present bias. We find a significant postintervention attendance increase, which we interpret as habit formation, and which subjects appear not to predict ex ante. These results are consistent with a model of projection bias with respect to habit formation. Neither the intervention incentives, nor the small posttreatment incentives involved in our elicitation mechanism, appear to crowd out existing intrinsic motivation. The combination of naiveté and projection bias in gym attendance can help to explain limited take-up of commitment devices by dynamically inconsistent agents, and points to new forms of contracts. Alternative explanations of our results are discussed.



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