Knowing what to do is not enough - extended version

Title: Why knowing what to do is not enough.

Anne-Greet Keizer – Research fellow WRR:
In today’s society people are expected 
to take responsibility and be self-reliant.

They must be on constant high alert in areas
such as health, work and personal finances.

But there’s a difference between what governments
expect of people and what they can actually handle.

And this is not confined to just
a small vulnerable group.

Even highly educated people sometimes drop the ball
by not paying attention or postponing things.

And sometimes government itself 
makes people less self-reliant.

For instance: in a system of cumulative fines.

Ignoring a small traffic fine can
quickly amount to problematic debts.

This book explains why knowing
what to do is not enough.

It focuses on people’s capacity to act:
non-cognitive capacities such as

setting goals, taking action, persevering
and coping with temptations and setbacks.

People differ in the degree to which
they possess these capacities.

That’s been shown in the Marshmallow Test.
Small children are offered a choice:

You can eat the marshmallow,
but if you wait, you’ll get two.

We see how children
handle the temptation differently.

Children who were able to wait longer
did better at school later on.

It makes sense for governments
to take this notion into account.

Governments should gauge the mental capacities of people realistically.

That’s good for people’s self-reliance
and the exchequer and for the legitimacy
of government.

Title:  determinants of the capacity to act.

Certain traits are particularly
important to self-reliance.

Temperament, self-control and belief.


People with an approach temperament
recognise difficult situations...

and take action.

People with an avoidance temperament
avoid difficult situations and go into denial.

Title: Self-control.

Self-control is the ability to change
or suppress dominant behavioural tendencies

and regulate behaviour,
thoughts and emotions.

Title: Belief.

One person may be an optimist and think
‘It will turn out alright’.

Another may be a pessimist and slide
into helplessness and passivity.

These differences are to some extent related to
level of education, but not entirely.

They generally follow a normal distribution.
Some people score low, others good...

but most(pause)about

Stress and mental burden
also put pressure on capacity to act.

The problem is worse when life is tough...
for example, during bankruptcy, divorce or dismissal.

These situations cause
particular stress.

Research shows we should not have high expectations
when it comes to training capacity to act.

There are no simple,
quick, cheap solutions.

Differences will always exist.

We call for a realistic perspective...

in the preparation,
content and implementation of policy.

Title: Stress and mental burden.

New policies should be tested
to measure the total mental burden

and examine whether they are
doable for the public.

Governments can reduce mental strain,
Especially during life events

by not just providing information
but also changing choice architecture.

By ticking default options, for example,
or reducing temptations...

so that people don’t constantly have to
rely on their self-control.

From a realistic perspective
Serious offences merit serious sanctions,

but small mistakes
should only have minor consequences.

Any irregularities should result in
early, personal contact.

Because when people are not too stressed yet,
they still have some mental space...

to make changes.

For more information go to our website
or download an open access copy at