Richard Kwiatkowski and I combine policy studies and psychology to (a) take forward ‘Psychology Based Policy Studies’, and (b) produce practical advice for actors engaged in the policy process.
Most policy studies, built on policy theory, explain policy processes without identifying practical lessons. They identify how and why people make decisions, and situate this process of choice within complex systems of environments in which there are many actors at multiple levels of government, subject to rules, norms, and group influences, forming networks, and responding to socioeconomic dynamics. This approach helps generate demand for more evidence of the role of psychology in these areas:
- To do more than ‘psychoanalyse’ a small number of key actors at the ‘centre’ of government.
- To consider how and why actors identify, understand, follow, reproduce, or seek to shape or challenge, rules within their organisations or networks.
- To identify the role of network formation and maintenance, and the extent to which it is built on heuristics to establish trust and the regular flow of information and advice.
- To examine the extent to which persuasion can be used to prompt actors to rethink their beliefs – such as when new evidence or a proposed new solution challenges the way that a problem is framed, how much attention it receives, and how it is solved.
- To consider (a) the effect of events such as elections on the ways in which policymakers process evidence (e.g. does it encourage short-term and vote-driven calculations?), and (b) what prompts them to pay attention to some contextual factors and not others.
This literature highlights the use of evidence by actors who anticipate or respond to lurches of attention, moral choices, and coalition formation built on bolstering one’s own position, demonising competitors, and discrediting (some) evidence. Although this aspect of choice should not be caricatured – it is not useful simply to bemoan ‘post-truth’ politics and policymaking ‘irrationality’ – it provides a useful corrective to the fantasy of a linear policy process in which evidence can be directed to a single moment of authoritative and ‘comprehensively rational’ choice based only on cognition. Political systems and human psychology combine to create a policy process characterised by many actors competing to influence continuous policy choice built on cognition and emotion.
What are the practical implications?
Few studies consider how those seeking to influence policy should act in such environments or give advice about how they can engage effectively in the policy process. Of course context is important, and advice needs to be tailored and nuanced, but that is not necessarily a reason to side-step the issue of moving beyond description. Further, policymakers and influencers do not have this luxury. They need to gather information quickly and effectively to make good choices. They have to take the risk of action.
To influence this process we need to understand it, and to understand it more we need to study how scientists try to influence it. Psychology-based policy studies can provide important insights to help actors begin to measure and improve the effectiveness of their engagement in policy by: taking into account cognitive and emotional factors and the effect of identity on possible thought; and, considering how political actors are ‘embodied’ and situated in time, place, and social systems.
5 tentative suggestions
However, few psychological insights have been developed from direct studies of policymaking, and there is a limited evidence base. So, we provide preliminary advice by identifying the most relevant avenues of conceptual research and deriving some helpful ‘tools’ to those seeking to influence policy.
Our working assumption is that policymakers need to gather information quickly and effectively, so they develop heuristics to allow them to make what they believe to be good choices. Their solutions often seem to be driven more by their emotions than a ‘rational’ analysis of the evidence, partly because we hold them to a standard that no human can reach. If so, and if they have high confidence in their heuristics, they will dismiss our criticism as biased and naïve. Under those circumstances, restating the need for ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is futile, and naively ‘speaking truth to power’ counterproductive.
For us, heuristics represent simple alternative strategies, built on psychological insights to use psychological insights in policy practice. They are broad prompts towards certain ways of thinking and acting, not specific blueprints for action in all circumstances:
- Develop ways to respond positively to ‘irrational’ policymaking
Instead of automatically bemoaning the irrationality of policymakers, let’s marvel at the heuristics they develop to make quick decisions despite uncertainty. Then, let’s think about how to respond in a ‘fast and frugal’ way, to pursue the kinds of evidence informed policymaking that is realistic in a complex and constantly changing policymaking environment.
- Tailor framing strategies to policymaker bias
The usual advice is to minimise the cognitive burden of your presentation, and use strategies tailored to the ways in which people pay attention to, and remember information (at the beginning and end of statements, with repetition, and using concrete and immediate reference points).
What is the less usual advice? If policymakers are combining cognitive and emotive processes, combine facts with emotional appeals. If policymakers are making quick choices based on their values and simple moral judgements, tell simple stories with a hero and a clear moral. If policymakers are reflecting a group emotion, based on their membership of a coalition with firmly-held beliefs, frame new evidence to be consistent with the ‘lens’ through which actors in those coalitions understand the world.
- Identify the right time to influence individuals and processes
Understand what it means to find the right time to exploit ‘windows of opportunity’. ‘Timing’ can refer to the right time to influence an individual, which is relatively difficult to identify but with the possibility of direct influence, or to act while several political conditions are aligned, which presents less chance for you to make a direct impact.
- Adapt to real-world dysfunctional organisations rather than waiting for an orderly process to appear
Politicians may appear confident of policy and with a grasp of facts and details, but are (a) often vulnerable and defensive, and closed to challenging information, and/ or (b) inadequate in organisational politics, or unable to change the rules of their organisations. In the absence of institutional reforms, and presence of ‘dysfunctional’ processes, develop pragmatic strategies: form relationships in networks, coalitions, or organisations first, then supply challenging information second. To challenge without establishing trust may be counterproductive.
- Recognise that the biases we ascribe to policymakers are present in ourselves and our own groups.
Identifying only the biases in our competitors may help mask academic/ scientific examples of group-think, and it may be counterproductive to use euphemistic terms like ‘low information’ to describe actors whose views we do not respect. This is a particular problem for scholars if they assume that most people do not live up to their own imagined standards of high-information-led action.
It may be more effective to recognise that: (a) people’s beliefs are honestly held, and policymakers believe that their role is to serve a cause greater than themselves.; and, (b) a fundamental aspect of evolutionary psychology is that people need to get on with each other, so showing simple respect – or going further, to ‘mirror’ that person’s non-verbal signals – can be useful even if it looks facile.
This leaves open the ethical question of how far we should go to identify our biases, accept the need to work with people whose ways of thinking we do not share, and how far we should go to secure their trust without lying about one’s beliefs.