Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking

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Psychology is at the heart of policymaking, but the literature on psychology is not always at the heart of policy theory. Most theories identify ‘bounded rationality’ which, on its own, is little more than a truism: people do not have the time, resources and cognitive ability to consider all information, all possibilities, all solutions, or anticipate all consequences of their actions. Consequently, they use informational shortcuts or heuristics – perhaps to produce ‘good-enough’ decisions. This is where psychology comes in, to:

  1. Describe the thought processes that people use to turn a complex world into something simple enough to understand and/ or respond to; and
  2. To compare types of thought process, such as (a) goal-oriented and reasoned, thoughtful behaviour and (b) the intuitive, gut, emotional or other heuristics we use to process and act on information quickly.

Where does policy theory come in? It seeks to situate these processes within a wider examination of policymaking systems and their environments, identifying the role of:

  • A wide range of actors making choices.
  • Institutions, as the rules, norms, and practices that influence behaviour.
  • Policy networks, as the relationships between policymakers and the ‘pressure participants’ with which they consult and negotiate.
  • Ideas – a broad term to describe beliefs, and the extent to which they are shared within groups, organisations, networks and political systems.
  • Context and events, to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s environment is in her control or how it influences her decisions.

Putting these approaches together is not easy. It presents us with an important choice regarding how to treat the role of psychology within explanations of complex policymaking systems – or, at least, on which aspect to focus.

Our first choice is to focus specifically on micro-level psychological processes, to produce hypotheses to test propositions regarding individual thought and action. There are many from which to choose, although from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (p 20), we can identify a basic distinction between two kinds ‘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’. Further, system 1 can be related to a series of cognitive shortcuts which develop over time as people learn from experience, 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.

Our second choice is to treat these propositions as assumptions, allowing us to build larger (‘meso’ or ‘macro’ level) models that produce other hypotheses. We ask what would happen if these assumptions were true, to allow us to theorise a social system containing huge numbers of people, and/ or focus on the influence of the system or environment in which people make decisions.

These choices are made in different ways in the policy theory literature:

  • The Advocacy Coalition Framework has tested the idea of ‘devil shift’ (coalitions romanticize their own cause and demonise their opponents, misperceiving their power, beliefs and/ or motives) but also makes assumptions about belief systems and prospect theory to build models and test other assumptions.
  • 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’.
  • Social Construction Theory argues 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.
  • The Narrative Policy Framework combines a discussion of emotion with the identification of ‘homo narrans’ (humans as storytellers – in stated contrast to ‘homo economicus’, or humans as rational beings). Narratives are used strategically to reinforce or oppose policy measures. 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.

These issues are discussed at more length in this paper: PSA 2014 Cairney Psychology Policymaking 7.4.14


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy

22 responses to “Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking

  1. Pingback: The Psychology of Evidence Based Policymaking: Who Will Speak For the Evidence if it Doesn’t Speak for Itself? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Really interesting Paul, thanks​!​

    I think that you would be really interested in some of the most cutting-edge research that I have come across explaining crowds and policy.


    And you may also enjoy this blog about the same too:

    Powerful stuff, no?

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  17. Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    More from Professor Cairney’s “1000 words” series on policy analysis, this time, the psychology of policymaking.

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