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Applying Psychology to Public Policy: How it Works

What is public policy?  Public Policy is everywhere around you, in ways you might not often think about. It shapes the way your community looks and operates. Policymakers analyze all of the challenges facing society in order to form evidence-based solutions. As a discipline, public policy is not just one simple area of study. Many different factors contribute to public policy, including economics, civics, sociology, history, urban planning, legal frameworks, and more. 

For government officials writing law and making executive decisions on legal issues, one of the most vital intersections of focus is between psychology, public policy, and law. Because public policy ultimately affects the people in a community, it’s important for policymakers to understand how people think, behave, and may respond to changes in our legal, and other, systems. This short guide will examine the role of public policy in daily life and examine the benefits of applying psychology to policy decisions. 

Are you a policymaker looking to bridge your knowledge in psychology to make policy changes? Check out Alliant’s PhD program in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law

How Public Policy Affects People 

How does public policy affect people? There are so many different answers to this question. In fact, it might be simpler to make a list of all the ways public policy doesn’t affect people! 

Public policy, whether civilians realize it or not, is what makes their community the way it is. There are policies about public transportation, zoning policies that affect where grocery stores and churches can be built, environmental policies that ensure your tap water is safe to drink—the examples are nearly endless. 

Let’s take a closer look at a few of the ways public policy affects your everyday experience:  

  • Public goods – It can be easy to forget that so many of the things we use every single day—roads and sidewalks, for example—are provided and maintained as the result of public policy. Policy decisions can be the difference between having a bustling city center or constant bumper to bumper traffic. Highways that connect separate communities don’t do so by chance. Someone has to decide which cities get access to which routes.   
  • Health – In addition to health care policies making public hospitals and clinics available, public policy is responsible for maintaining people’s health in ways they may not even realize. For example, public policies determine how to regulate food production and imports so that the food in your grocery store doesn’t make you sick. Similarly, public policies are what keep pollution levels within a safe range to avoid community-wide respiratory illnesses.  
  • Education – Policymakers have to decide what kind of curriculum public schools in a community should teach, and how they should teach it. Thus, many of the lessons people learn and the skills they develop in classrooms are a result of research and analysis done by policymakers.  
  • Public Safety - Policymakers also develop law enforcement policies, set up criminal justice systems, establish correctional and rehabilitation systems, institute cyber security and anti-terrorism policies  and other aspects of public policy and law to safeguard and improve communities, societies and the world. Learn about a doctoral degree in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.

Why Psychology and Public Policy Go Hand in Hand

Politicians often consult with economists when they want to understand the financial results of the laws and policies they enact. More and more frequently, government officials are also acknowledging the importance of the human impact of the different public policy they put into place. To get a better grasp on the social side of things, policymakers turn to the study of social psychology. 

Some problems that society faces can be directly addressed with economic principles. However, issues like obesity and climate change are influenced predominantly by human behavior, and need to be addressed with that in mind. There are various ways in which psychological factors come into play throughout the process of making and implementing public policy.

Here’s how psychology, public policy, and law complement each other: 


The increased visibility of psychologists in legislative circles can affect policy at the ground level. Psychologists have a distinct set of values and concerns that politicians and economists may not necessarily share. 

Based on their research into community life, psychologists can advocate that lawmakers enact new legislation to support under-served and at-risk populations. For example, one psychologist with a PhD in counseling worked on then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s staff to help shape legislation focused on addressing obesity and eating disorders. 

The American Psychological Association has a Public Policy Office dedicated to crafting policies that address social issues like mental health, hate crimes, violence, sexual harassment, accessibility to public spaces, healthcare, and much more.  


Once public policies are written and perhaps passed into law, only half of the process has been completed. The other half of the process involves actually putting those policies into action, and seeing results. 

Due to their knowledge of behavior, psychologists have a very valuable perspective on how the public will adapt to new policies. Psychological factors have informed how governments deliver their policies, in order to maximize their effectiveness. 

In the United Kingdom, for example, repeated psychological experiments have established the principle that people are more likely to enroll in a retirement savings plan through an opt-out option, as opposed to an opt-in system. Armed with this knowledge, the United Kingdom changed its default option to opt-out, and saw a 22% increase in enrollment among workers at large firms.  

How to Get Involved in Public Policy 

In addition to running for office, studying psychology is a great way to have an impact on your community. Psychologists are becoming more intimately involved with governmental decisions, and the results speak for themselves. 


Association for Psychological Science. Applying Psychology to Public Policy.…

American Psychological Association. Mixing psychology and public policy.

The Sycamore Institute. 5 Ways Public Policy Impacts Health.…;

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