I am at a workshop today on policy ‘bubbles’, or (real and perceived) disproportionate policy responses. For Moshe Maor, a bubble describes an over-reaction to a problem, and a negative policy bubble describes under-reaction.
For Maor, this focus on bubbles is one way into our increasing focus on the role of emotion in policymaking: we pay disproportionate attention to problems, and try to solve some but not others, based on the ways in which we engage emotionally with information.
This focus on psychology is, I think, gaining a lot of traction in political science now, and I think it is crucial to explaining, for example, processes associated with ‘evidence-based policymaking’.
In taking this agenda forward, there remain some outstanding issues:
How much of the psychology literature is already reflected in policy studies? For example, see the social construction of target populations (emotion-driven treatment of social groups), ACF (on loss aversion and the devil shift), and the NPF (telling stories to exploit cognitive biases).
What insights remain untapped from key fields such as organisational psychology? I’ll say more about this in a forthcoming post.
How can we study the psychology of policymaking? Most policy theory begins with some reference to bounded rationality, including PET and the identification of disproportionate information processing (policymakers pay disproportionate attention to some issues and ignore the rest). It is largely deductive then empirical: we make some logical steps about the implications of bounded rationality, then study the process in that light.
Similarly, I think most studies of emotion/ policymaking take insights from psychology (e.g. people value losses more than gains, or they make moral judgements then seek evidence to justify them) and then apply them indirectly to policymaking (asking, for example, what is the effect of prospect theory on the behaviour of coalitions).
Can we do more, by studying more directly the actions of policymakers rather than merely interpreting their actions? The problem, of course, is that few policymakers may be keen on engaging in the types of study (e.g. experiments with control groups) that psychologists have used to establish things like fluency effects.
How does policymaker psychology fit into broader explanations of policymaking? The psychology of policymakers is one part of the story. The other is the system or environment in which they operate. So, we have some choices to make about future studies. Some might ‘zoom in’ to focus on emotionally-driven policymaking in key actors, perhaps at the centre of government.
Others may ‘zoom out’. The latter may involve ascribing the same basic thought processes to a large number of actors, examining that process at a relatively abstract level. This is the necessary consequence of trying to account for the effects of a very large number of actors, and to take into account the role of a policymaking environment, only some of which is in the control of policymakers.
Can we really demonstrate disproportionate policy action? The idea of a proportionate policy response interests me, because I think it is always in the eye of the beholder. We make moral and other personal evaluative statements when we describe a proportionate solution in relation to the size of the problem.
For example, in tobacco policy, a well-established argument in public health is that a proportionate policy response to the health effects of smoking and passive smoking (a) has been 20-30 years behind the evidence in ‘leading countries’, and (b) has yet to happen in ‘laggard’ countries. The counterargument is that the identification of a problem does not necessitate the favoured public health solution (comprehensive tobacco control, towards the ‘endgame’ of zero smoking) because it involves major limits to personal liberties and choice.
Is emotion-driven policymaking necessarily a bad thing?
[excerpt from my 2014 PSA paper ] This is partly the focus of Alter and Oppenheimer (2008) when they argue that policymakers spend disproportionate amounts of money on risks with which they are familiar, at the expense of spending money on things with more negative effects, producing a ‘dramatic misallocation of funds’. They draw on Sunstein (2002), who suggests that emotional bases for attention to environmental problems from the 1970s prompted many regulations to be disproportionate to the risk involved. Further, Slovic’s work suggest that people’s 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 (Slovic, P. 2010: xxii).
Haidt (2001: 815) argues that a focus on psychology can be used to improve policymaking: 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’. Similarly, Alter and Oppenheimer (2009: 232) worry about medical and legal judgements swayed by fluid diagnoses and stories.
These studies compare with arguments focusing on the positive role of emotions of decision-making, either individually (see Constantinescu, 2012, drawing on Frank, 1988 and Elster, 2000 on the decisions of judges) or as part of social groups, with emotional responses providing useful information in the form of social cues (Van Kleef et al, 2010).
Policy theory does not shy away from these issues. For example, Schneider and Ingram (2014) 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, part of the value of policy theory is to show that policy results from the interaction of large numbers of people and institutions. So, the poor actions of one policymaker would not be the issue; we need to know more about the cumulative effect of individual emotional decision making in collective decision-making – not only in discrete organisations, but also networks and systems.
And finally: if it is a bad thing, should we do something about it?
Our choice is to find it interesting then go home (this might appeal to the academics) or try to limit the damage/ maximise the benefits of policymaker psychology to policy and society (this might appeal to practitioners). There is no obvious way to do something, though, is there?