Tag Archives: psychology and policymaking

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Policy Process

We talk a lot about ‘the policy process’ without really saying what it is. If you are new to policy studies, maybe you think that you’ll learn what it is eventually if you read enough material. This would be a mistake! Instead, when you seek a definition of the policy process, you’ll find two common responses:

  1. Many will seek to define policy or public policy instead of ‘the policy process’.
  2. Some will describe the policy process as a policy cycle with stages.

Both responses seem inadequate: one avoids giving an answer, and another gives the wrong answer!

However, we can combine elements of each approach to give you just enough of a sense of ‘the policy process’ to continue reading the full ‘1000 words’ series:

1. The beauty of the ‘what is policy?’ question …

… is that we don’t give you an answer. It may seem frustrating at first to fail to find a definitive answer, but eventually you’ll accept this problem! The more important outcome is to use the ‘what is policy?’ question to develop analytical skills, to allow you to define policy in more specific circumstances (such as, what are the key elements of policy in this case study?), and ask more useful and specific questions about policy and policymaking. So, look at the questions we need to ask if we begin with the definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’: does action include statements of intent? Do we include unintended policy outcomes? Are all policymakers in government? What about the things policymakers choose not to do? And so on.

2. The beauty of the policy cycle approach …

… is that it provides a simple way to imagine policy ‘dynamics’, or events and choices producing a never-ending sequence of other events and choices. Look at the stages model to identify many different tasks within one ‘process’, and to get the sense that policymaking is continuous and often ‘its own cause’. It’s not a good description of what actually happens, but it describes what some might like to happen, and used by many governments to describe what they do. Consequently, we can’t simply ignore it, at least without providing a better description, a better plan, and a better way for governments to justify what they do.

There are more complicated but better ways of describing policymaking dynamics

This picture is the ‘policy process’ equivalent of my definition of public policy. It captures the main elements of the policy process described – albeit in different ways – by most policy theories in this series. I present it here to give you enough of an answer – to ‘what is the policy process?’ – to help you ask more questions.

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

In the middle is ‘policy choice’

At the heart of most policy theory is ‘bounded rationality’, which describes (a) the cognitive limits of all people, and (b) how policymakers overcome such limits to make decisions (in the absence of NZT). In short, they use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to action, but these are provocative terms to prompt further reading (on, for example, ‘evidence-based policymaking’).

‘Rational’ describes goal-oriented activity: people may have limits to their attention and ‘information processing’, but they find systematic ways to respond, by setting goals and producing criteria to find the best information. ‘Irrational’ describes aspects of psychology: people draw on habit, emotions, their ‘gut’ or intuition, well-established beliefs, and their familiarity with information to make often-almost-instant decisions.

Surrounding choice is what we’ll call the ‘policy environment’

Environment is a metaphor we’ll use to describe the combination of key elements of the policy process which (a) I describe separately in further 1000 words posts, and (b) policy theories bring together to produce an overall picture of policy dynamics.

There are 5 or 6 key elements. In the picture are 6, reflecting the way Tanya Heikkila and I describe it (and the fact that I had 7 boxes to fill). In real life, I describe 5 because I have 5 digits on each hand. If you are Count Tyrone Rugen you have more choice.

Policy environments are made up of:

  1. A wide range of actors (which can be individuals and organisations with the ability to deliberate and act) making or influencing policy at many levels and types of government.
  2. Institutions, defined as the rules followed by actors. Some are formal, written down, and easy to identify. Others are informal, reproduced via processes like socialisation, and difficult to spot and describe.
  3. Networks, or the relationships between policymakers and influencers. Some are wide open, competitive, and contain many actors. Others are relatively closed, insulated from external attention, and contain few actors.
  4. Ideas, or the beliefs held and shared by actors. There is often a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion, constraining or facilitating the progress of new ‘ideas’ as policy solutions.
  5. Context and events. Context describes the policy conditions – including economic, social, demographic, and technological factors – that provide the context for policy choice, and are often outside of the control of policymakers. Events can be routine and predictable, or unpredictable ‘focusing’ events that prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

This picture is only the beginning of analysis, raising further questions that will make more sense when you read further, including: should policymaker choice be at the centre of this picture? Why are there arrows in the cycle but not in my picture? Should we describe complex policymaking ‘systems’ rather than ‘environments’? How exactly does each element in the ‘policy environment’ or ‘system’ relate to the other?

The answer to the final question can only be found in each theory of the policy process, and each theory describes this relationship in a different way. Let’s not worry about that just now! We’ll return to this issue at the end, when thinking about how to combine the insights of many theories.

 

 

 

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Policy in 500 Words: The Policy Process

We talk a lot about ‘the policy process’ without really saying what it is. If you are new to policy studies, maybe you think that you’ll learn what it is eventually if you read enough material. This would be a mistake! Instead, when you seek a definition of the policy process, you’ll find two common responses.

  1. Many will seek to define policy or public policy instead of ‘the policy process’.
  2. Some will describe the policy process as a policy cycle with stages.

Both responses seem inadequate: one avoids giving an answer, and another gives the wrong answer!

However, we can combine elements of each approach to give you just enough of a sense of ‘the policy process’ to continue reading:

  1. The beauty of the ‘what is policy?’ question is that we don’t give you an answer. I give you a working definition to help raise further questions. Look at the questions we need to ask if we begin with the definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’.
  2. The beauty of the policy cycle approach is that it provides a simple way to imagine policy ‘dynamics’, or events and choices producing a sequence of other events and choices. Look at the stages to identify many different tasks within one ‘process’, and to get the sense that policymaking is continuous and often ‘its own cause’.

There are more complicated but better ways of describing policymaking dynamics

This picture is the ‘policy process’ equivalent of my definition of public policy. It captures the main elements of the policy process described (in different ways) by most policy theories. It is there to give you enough of an answer to help you ask the right questions.

Cairney 2017 image of the policy process

In the middle is ‘policy choice’. At the heart of most policy theory is ‘bounded rationality’, which describes (a) the cognitive limits of people, and (b) how they overcome those limits to make decisions. They use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to action.

Surrounding choice is what we’ll call the ‘policy environment’, containing: policymakers in many levels and types of government, the ideas or beliefs they share, the rules they follow, the networks they form with influencers, and the ‘structural’ or socioeconomic context in which they operate.

This picture is only the beginning of analysis, raising further questions that will make more sense when you read further, including: should policymaker choice be at the centre of this picture? Why are there arrows (describing the order of choice) in the cycle but not in my picture?

Take home message for students: don’t describe ‘the policy process’ without giving the reader some sense of its meaning. Its definition overlaps with ‘policy’ considerably, but the ‘process’ emphasises modes and dynamics of policymaking, while ‘policy’ emphasises outputs. Then, think about how each policy model or theory tries, in different ways, to capture the key elements of the process. A cycle focuses on ‘stages’ but most theories in this series focus on ‘environments’.

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing for Impact: what you need to know, and 5 ways to know it

This is a post for my talk at the ‘Politheor: European Policy Network’ event Write For Impact: Training In Op-Ed Writing For Policy Advocacy. There are other speakers with more experience of, and advice on, ‘op-ed’ writing. My aim is to describe key aspects of politics and policymaking to help the audience learn why they should write op-eds in a particular way for particular audiences.

A key rule in writing is to ‘know your audience’, but it’s easier said than done if you seek many sympathetic audiences in many parts of a complex policy process. Two simple rules should help make this process somewhat clearer:

  1. Learn how policymakers simplify their world, and
  2. Learn how policy environments influence their attention and choices.

We can use the same broad concepts to help explain both processes, in which many policymakers and influencers interact across many levels and types of government to produce what we call ‘policy’:

  1. Policymaker psychology: tell an evidence-informed story

Policymakers receive too much information, and seek ways to ignore most of it while making decisions. To do so, they use ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ means: selecting a limited number of regular sources of information, and relying on emotion, gut instinct, habit, and familiarity with information. In other words, your audience combines cognition and emotion to deal with information, and they can ignore information for long periods then quickly shift their attention towards it, even if that information has not really changed.

Consequently, an op-ed focusing solely ‘the facts’ can be relatively ineffective compared to an evidence-informed story, perhaps with a notional setting, plot, hero, and moral. Your aim shifts from providing more and more evidence to reduce uncertainty about a problem, to providing a persuasive reason to reduce ambiguity. Ambiguity relates to the fact that policymakers can understand a policy problem in many different ways – such as tobacco as an economic good, issue of civil liberties, or public health epidemic – but often pay exclusive attention to one.

So, your aim may be to influence the simple ways in which people understand the world, to influence their demand for more information. An emotional appeal can transform a factual case, but only if you know how people engage emotionally with information. Sometimes, the same story can succeed with one audience but fail with another.

  1. Institutions: learn the ‘rules of the game’

Institutions are the rules people use in policymaking, including the formal, written down, and well understood rules setting out who is responsible for certain issues, and the informal, unwritten, and unclear rules informing action. The rules used by policymakers can help define the nature of a policy problem, who is best placed to solve it, who should be consulted routinely, and who can safely be ignored. These rules can endure for long periods and become like habits, particularly if policymakers pay little attention to a problem or why they define it in a particular way.

  1. Networks and coalitions: build coalitions and establish trust

Such informal rules, about how to understand a problem and who to speak with about it, can be reinforced in networks of policymakers and influencers.

‘Policy community’ partly describes a sense that most policymaking is processed out of the public spotlight, often despite minimal high level policymaker interest. Senior policymakers delegate responsibility for policymaking to bureaucrats, who seek information and advice from groups. Groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government, and policymakers have ‘standard operating procedures’ that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others

‘Policy community’ also describes a sense that the network seems fairly stable, built on high levels of trust between participants, based on factors such as reliability (the participant was a good source of information, and did not complain too much in public about decisions), a common aim or shared understanding of the problem, or the sense that influencers represent important groups.

So, the same policy case can have a greater impact if told by a well trusted actor in a policy community. Or, that community member may use networks to build key coalitions behind a case, use information from the network to understand which cases will have most impact, or know which audiences to seek.

  1. Ideas: learn the ‘currency’ of policy argument

This use of networks relates partly to learning the language of policy debate in particular ‘venues’, to learn what makes a convincing case. This language partly reflects a well-established ‘world view’ or the ‘core beliefs’ shared by participants. For example, a very specific ‘evidence-based’ language is used frequently in public health, while treasury departments look for some recognition of ‘value for money’ (according to a particular understanding of how you determine VFM). So, knowing your audience is knowing the terms of debate that are often so central to their worldview that they take them for granted and, in contrast, the forms of argument that are more difficult to pursue because they are challenging or unfamiliar to some audiences. Imagine a case that challenges completely someone’s world view, or one which is entirely consistent with it.

  1. Socioeconomic factors and events: influence how policymakers see the outside world

Some worldviews can be shattered by external events or crises, but this is a rare occurrence. It may be possible to generate a sense of crisis with reference to socioeconomic changes or events, but people will interpret these developments through the ‘lens’ of their own beliefs. In some cases, events seem impossible to ignore but we may not agree on their implications for action. In others, an external event only matters if policymakers pay attention to them. Indeed, we began this discussion with the insight that policymakers have to ignore almost all such information available to them.

Know your audience revisited: practical lessons from policy theories

To take into account all of these factors, while trying to make a very short and persuasive case, may seem impossible. Instead, we might pick up some basic rules of thumb from particular theories or approaches. We can discuss a few examples from ongoing work on ‘practical lessons from policy theories’.

Storytelling for policy impact

If you are telling a story with a setting, plot, hero, and moral, it may be more effective to focus on a hero than villain. More importantly, imagine two contrasting audiences: one is moved by your personal and story told to highlight some structural barriers to the wellbeing of key populations; another is unmoved, judges that person harshly, and thinks they would have done better in their shoes (perhaps they prefer to build policy on stereotypes of target populations). ‘Knowing your audience’ may involve some trial-and-error to determine which stories work under which circumstances.

Appealing to coalitions

Or, you may decide that it is impossible to write anything to appeal to all relevant audiences. Instead, you might tailor it to one, to reinforce its beliefs and encourage people to act. The ‘advocacy coalition framework’ describes such activities as routine: people go into politics to translate their beliefs into policy, they interpret the world through those beliefs, and they romanticise their own cause while demonising their opponents. If so, would a bland op-ed have much effect on any audience?

Learning from entrepreneurs

Policy entrepreneurs’ draw on three rules, two of which seem counterintuitive:

  1. Don’t focus on bombarding policymakers with evidence. Scientists focus on making more evidence to reduce uncertainty, but put people off with too much information. Entrepreneurs tell a good story, grab the audience’s interest, and the audience demands information.
  2. By the time people pay attention to a problem it’s too late to produce a solution. So, you produce your solution then chase problems.
  3. When your environment changes, your strategy changes. For example, in the US federal level, you’re in the sea, and you’re a surfer waiting for the big wave. In the smaller subnational level, on a low attention and low budget issue, you can be Poseidon moving the ‘streams’. In the US federal level, you need to ‘soften’ up solutions over a long time to generate support. In subnational or other countries, you have more opportunity to import and adapt ready-made solutions.

It all adds up to one simple piece of advice – timing and luck matters when making a policy case – but policy entrepreneurs know how to influence timing and help create their own luck.

On the day, we can use such concepts to help us think through the factors that you might think about while writing op-eds, even though it is very unlikely that you would mention them in your written work.

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Psychology Based Policy Studies: 5 heuristics to maximise the use of evidence in policymaking

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.

Cairney Kwiatkowski abstract

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:

  1. To do more than ‘psychoanalyse’ a small number of key actors at the ‘centre’ of government.
  2. To consider how and why actors identify, understand, follow, reproduce, or seek to shape or challenge, rules within their organisations or networks.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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Is there any hope for evidence in emotional debates and chaotic government?

Two recent news features sum up the role of emotion and ‘chaos’ in policymaking.

The first is ‘Irritation and anger’ may lead to Brexit, says influential psychologist in The Telegraph. The headline suggests that people may vote Leave for emotional reasons, rather than with reference to a more ‘rational’ process in which people identify the best evidence and use it to weight up the short and long term consequences of action.

Yet, the article confirms that we’re all at it! To be human is to use emotional, gut-level, and habitual thinking to turn a complex world, with too much information, into a good enough decision in a necessary short amount of time.

In debate, evidence is mentioned a lot, but only to praise the evidence backing my decision and rejecting yours. Or, you only trust the evidence from people you trust. If you trust the evidence from certain scientists, you stress their scientific credentials. If not, you find some from other experts. Or, if all else is lost, you reject experts as condescending elites with a hidden agenda. Or, you say simply that they can’t be that clever if they agree with smarmy Cameron/ Johnson.

Lesson 1: you can see these emotional and manipulative approaches to policymaking play out in the EU referendum. Don’t assume that policymaking behind closed doors, on other issues, is any different.

The second feature is Lost in Transit: chaos in government research in The Economist.

It describes a Sense about Science report which (a) was commissioned ‘following a spate of media stories about government research being suppressed or delayed’, and (b) finds that ‘The UK government spends around £2.5 billion a year on research for policy, but does not know how many studies it has commissioned or which of them have been published’.

The Economist reports the perhaps-unexpected result of the inquiry:

But the main gripe is the sheer disorganisation of it all. The report’s afterword states that “Sir Stephen looked for suppression and found chaos”.

Such accounts reflect the two contradictory stories that we often tell about government. The first relates to the Westminster model of democratic accountability which helps concentrate power at the centre of government: if you know who is in charge, you know who to blame.

The second, regarding complex government, describes a complicated world of public policy in which no-one seems to be in control. For example, we make reference to: the huge size and reach of government; the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making; the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy; the multi-level nature of policymaking; and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other.

The problem with the first story is that (a) although it is easy to tell during elections and inquiries, (b) you always struggle to find it when you actually study government.

The problem with the second is that, (a) although it seems realistic when you study government, (b) few people will buy it when they are seeking to hold ministers and governments to account. This problem may be exacerbated by the terms of reference of reports: few will accept a pragmatic response, based on the second story of complexity, if you start out by using the first story of central control to say that you will track down and solve the problem!

Lesson 2: if you assume central control you will find chaos (and struggle to produce feasible recommendations to deal with it). The manipulation of evidence takes place in a complex policymaking system over which no individual or ‘core executive’ has control. Indeed, no single person or organisation could even pay attention to all that goes on within government. This insight requires pragmatic inquiries and solutions, not the continuous reassertion of central control and discovery of ‘chaos’.

It might be possible to develop a third lesson if we put these two together. One part of the EU debate reflects our inability to understand EU policymaking and relate it to the relatively clear processes in the UK, in which you know who is in charge and therefore who to blame. The EU seems less democratic because it is so complex and remote. Yet, if we follow this other story about complexity in the UK, we often find that UK politics is also difficult to follow. Its image does not describe reality.

Lesson 3: when you find policymaking complexity in the EU, don’t assume it is any better in the UK! Instead, try to compare like with like.

See also

I expand on both lessons in The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking

Cock-up, not conspiracy, conceals evidence for policy

Government buries its own research – and that’s bad for democracy

The rationality paradox of Nudge: rational tools of government in a world of bounded rationality

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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

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking

(podcast download)

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

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Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy