The Psychology of Evidence Based Policymaking: Who Will Speak For the Evidence if it Doesn’t Speak for Itself?

Let’s begin with a simple – and deliberately naïve – prescription for evidence based policymaking (EBPM): there should be a much closer link between (a) the process in which scientists and knowledge brokers identify major policy problems, and (b) the process in which politicians make policy decisions. We should seek to close the ‘evidence-policy gap’. The evidence should come first and we should bemoan the inability of policymakers to act accordingly. I discuss why that argument is naïve here and here, but in terms of the complexity of policy processes and the competing claims for knowledge-based policy. This post is about the link between EBPM and psychology.

Let’s consider the role of two types of thought process common to all people, policymakers included: (a) the intuitive, gut, emotional or other heuristics we use to process and act on information quickly; and (b) goal-oriented and reasoned, thoughtful behaviour. As Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (p 20) puts it: ‘System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations … often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration’

The naïve description of EBPM requires System 2 (‘slow’) thinking, but what happens if most policymaking is characterised by System 1 (‘fast’)? The answer is ‘a whole bunch of cognitive shortcuts’, including:

  • the ‘availability heuristic’, when people relate the size, frequency or probability of a problem to how easy it is to remember or imagine
  • the ‘representativeness heuristic’, when people overestimate the probability of vivid events
  • ‘prospect theory’, when people value losses more than equivalent gains
  • ‘framing effects’, based on emotional and moral judgements
  • confirmation bias
  • optimism bias, or unrealistic expectations about our aims working out well when we commit to them
  • status quo bias
  • a tendency to use exemplars of social groups to represent general experience; and
  • a ‘need for coherence’ and to establish patterns and causal relationships when they may not exist (see Paul Lewis, p 7).

The ‘availability heuristic’ may also be linked to more recent studies of ‘processing fluency’ – which suggests that people’s decisions are influenced by their familiarity with things; with the ease in which they process information (see Alter and Oppenheimer, 2009). Fluency can take several forms, including conceptual, perceptual, and linguistic. For example, people may pay more attention to an issue or statement if they already possess some knowledge of it and find it easy to understand or recall. They may pay attention to people when their faces seem familiar and find fewer faults with systems they comprehend. They may place more value on things they find familiar, such as their domestic currency, items that they own compared to items they would have to buy, or the stocks of companies with more pronounceable names – even if they are otherwise identical. Or, their ability to imagine things in an abstract or concrete form may relate to their psychological ‘distance’ from it.

Is fast thinking bad thinking? Views from psychology

Alter and Oppenheimer use these insights to warn policymakers against taking the wrong attitude to regulation or spending based on flawed assessments of risk – for example, they might spend disproportionate amounts of money on projects designed to address risks with which they are most familiar (Slovic suggests that feelings towards risk may even be influenced by the way in which it is described, for example as a percentage versus a 1 in X probability). Alter and Oppenheimer also worry about medical and legal judgements swayed by fluid diagnoses and stories. Haidt argues that the identification of the ‘intuitive basis of moral judgment’ can be used to help policymakers ‘avoid mistakes’ or allow people to develop ‘programs’ or an ‘environment’ to ‘improve the quality of moral judgment and behavior’. These studies compare with arguments focusing on the positive role of emotions of decision-making, either individually (Frank) or as part of social groups, with emotional responses providing useful information in the form of social cues (Van Kleef et al).

Is fast thinking bad thinking? Views from the political and policy sciences

Social Construction Theory suggests that policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to ‘institutionalize’ their understanding of a policy problem and its solution. They ‘socially construct’ their target populations to argue that they are deserving either of governmental benefits or punishments. Schneider and Ingram (forthcoming) argue that the outcomes of social construction are often dysfunctional and not based on a well-reasoned, goal-oriented strategy: ‘Studies have shown that rules, tools, rationales and implementation structures inspired by social constructions send dysfunctional messages and poor choices may hamper the effectiveness of policy’.

However, not all policy scholars make such normative pronouncements. Indeed, the value of policy theory is often to show that policy results from the interaction between large numbers of people and institutions. So, the actions of a small number of policymakers would not be the issue; we need to know more about the cumulative effect of individual emotional decision making in a collective decision-making environment – in organisations, networks and systems. For example:

  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework suggests that people engage in coordinated activity to cooperate with each other and compete with other coalitions, based on their shared beliefs and a tendency to demonise their opponents. In some cases, there are commonly accepted ways to interpret the evidence. In others, it is a battle of ideas.
  • Multiple Streams Analysis and Punctuated Equilibrium Theory focus on uncertainty and ambiguity, exploring the potential for policymaker attention to lurch dramatically from one problem or ‘image’ (the way the problem is viewed or understood). They identify the framing strategies – of actors such as ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘venue shoppers’ and ‘monopolists’ – based on a mixture of empirical facts and ‘emotional appeals’.
  • The Narrative Policy Framework combines a discussion of emotion with the identification of narrative strategies. Each narrative has a setting, characters, plot and moral. They can be compared to marketing, as persuasion based more on appealing to an audience’s beliefs (or exploiting their thought processes) than the evidence. People will pay attention to certain narratives because they are boundedly rational, seeking shortcuts to gather sufficient information – and prone to accept simple stories that seem plausible, confirm their biases, exploit their emotions, and/ or come from a source they trust.

In each case, we might see our aim as going beyond the simple phrase: ‘the evidence doesn’t speak for itself’. If ‘fast thinking’ is pervasive in policymaking, then ‘the evidence’ may only be influential if it can be provided in ways that are consistent with the thought processes of certain policymakers – such as by provoking a strong emotional reaction (to confirm or challenge biases), or framing messages in terms that are familiar to (and can be easily processed by) policymakers.

These issues are discussed further in these posts:

Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking?

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking

And at more length in these papers:

PSA 2014 Cairney Psychology Policymaking 7.4.14

Cairney PSA 2014 EBPM 5.3.14

See also: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Evidence alone won’t bring about social change

Discover Society (Delaney and Henderson) Risk and Choice in the Scottish Independence debate


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

3 responses to “The Psychology of Evidence Based Policymaking: Who Will Speak For the Evidence if it Doesn’t Speak for Itself?

  1. Pingback: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’ | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Four obstacles to evidence based policymaking (EBPM) | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  3. Pingback: Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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