Tag Archives: rationality

Emotion and reason in politics: the rational/ irrational distinction

In ‘How to communicate effectively with policymakers’, Richard Kwiatkowski and I use the distinction between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ cognitive shortcuts ‘provocatively’. I sort of wish we had been more direct, because I have come to realise that:

  1. My attempts to communicate with sarcasm and facial gestures may only ever appeal to a niche audience, and
  2. even if you use the scare quotes – around a word like ‘irrational’ – to denote the word’s questionable use, it’s not always clear what I’m questioning, because
  3. you need to know the story behind someone’s discussion to know what they are questioning.*

So, here are some of the reference points I’m using when I tell a story about ‘irrationality’:

1. I’m often invited to be the type of guest speaker that challenges the audience, it is usually a scientific audience, and the topic is usually evidence based policymaking.

So, when I say ‘irrational’, I’m speaking to (some) scientists who think of themselves as rational and policymakers as irrational, and use this problematic distinction to complain about policy-based evidence, post-truth politics, and perhaps even the irrationality of voters for Brexit. Action based on this way of thinking would be counterproductive. In that context, I use the word ‘irrational’ as a way into some more nuanced discussions including:

  • all humans combine cognition and emotion to make choices; and,
  • emotions are one of many sources of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’ that help us make some decisions very quickly and often very well.

In other words, it is silly to complain that some people are irrational, when we are all making choices this way, and such decision-making is often a good thing.

2. This focus on scientific rationality is part of a wider discussion of what counts as good evidence or valuable knowledge. Examples include:

  • Policy debates on the value of bringing together many people with different knowledge claims – such as through user and practitioner experience – to ‘co-produce’ evidence.
  • Wider debates on the ‘decolonization of knowledge’ in which narrow ‘Western’ scientific principles help exclude the voices of many populations by undermining their claims to knowledge.

3. A focus on rationality versus irrationality is still used to maintain sexist and racist caricatures or stereotypes, and therefore dismiss people based on a misrepresentation of their behaviour.

I thought that, by now, we’d be done with dismissing women as emotional or hysterical, but apparently not. Indeed, as some recent racist and sexist coverage of Serena Williams demonstrates, the idea that black women are not rational is still tolerated in mainstream discussion.

4. Part of the reason that we can only conclude that people combine cognition and emotion, without being able to separate their effects in a satisfying way, is that the distinction is problematic.

It is difficult to demonstrate empirically. It is also difficult to assign some behaviours to one camp or the other, such as when we consider moral reasoning based on values and logic.

To sum up, I’ve been using the rational/irrational distinction explicitly to make a simple point that is relevant to the study of politics and policymaking:

  • All people use cognitive shortcuts to help them ignore almost all information about the world, to help them make decisions efficiently.
  • If you don’t understand and act on this simple insight, you’ll waste your time by trying to argue someone into submission or giving them a 500-page irrelevant report when they are looking for one page written in a way that makes sense to them.

Most of the rest has been mostly implicit, and communicated non-verbally, which is great when you want to keep a presentation brief and light, but not if you want to acknowledge nuance and more serious issues.





*which is why I’m increasingly interested in Riker’s idea of heresthetics, in which the starting point of a story is crucial. We can come to very different conclusions about a problem and its solution by choosing different starting points, to accentuate one aspect of a problem and downplay another, even when our beliefs and preferences remain basically the same.




Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy, Storytelling

The global study of governance and public policy

Cairney GPP Iran

I was invited by Dr Emamian from the Governance and Policy Think Tank to deliver this short lecture at the first ‘governance and public policy conference’ in Iran. I was unable to attend, so recorded a set of short video presentations supplemented by blog discussion. The topics to be covered include the importance of a scholarly network for policy studies, the need for a set of core policy concepts to act as a technical language for that network, and the need to apply that language to explain shifts in government and regulation towards ‘regulatory governance’.

Please note that my choice to record the videos in my garden (while I look up) seemed good at the time, for some very good reasons that I won’t get into. However, you will see that I become increasingly cold and annoyed at being cold. I can only apologize for my face and the fact that I was too cold to remember to put on my professional voice.

Using shared concepts in a scholarly network of policy researchers

Our aim may be to produce a global network of policy scholars, in two main ways:

  1. To foster meetings and discussion, such as via this conference and others such as the ICPP and ECPR
  2. To make sure that we are talking about the same thing. Most of the theories to which I refer are based on studies of countries like the US and UK. Their prominence contributes to a ‘global north’ perspective which can be useful in the abstract but with uncertain applicability across the globe.

For example, when considering the applicability of US-inspired theories, think about their taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of a political system, in which leaders in many levels and types of government are elected regularly, there is a constitution guaranteeing a division of powers across legislative-executive-judicial branches and between federal/subnational levels, and people describe a ‘pluralist’ system in which many groups mobilise and counter-mobilise to influence policy.

What happens when we stop taking this political context for granted? Do these theories remain as relevant?

Which concepts do we use?

I describe two main abstract concepts then invite you to think about how to apply them in more concrete circumstances.

  1. Bounded rationality, not comprehensive rationality.

No-one can understand fully the world in which we live. Individuals can only understand and pay attention to a tiny part of key aspects of the world such as political systems.

Indeed, a handy phrase to remember is that almost all people must ignore almost everything almost all of the time.

Yet, they must make choices despite uncertainty, perhaps by adopting ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics. In other words, we may see all human choices as flawed when compared with an ideal of perfect decision-making. On the other hand, we may marvel at the ways in which humans make often-good choices despite their limitations.

Individual policymakers use two short-cuts to gather enough information to make choices:

  • ‘Rational’, in which they adopt measures to ensure that they have good enough information to inform decisions. For example, they prioritise certain written sources of information and draw on people they consider to be experts.
  • ‘Irrational’, in which they rely on things like gut instinct, habit, and emotion to make snap decisions.

In that context, policy scholarship involves the study of how people make and influence those choices. One part is about the role of evidence, in which people produce information to reduce uncertainty about the nature of the world. However, the more important study is of how people understand the world in the first place. As policy scholars, we focus on ambiguity, to describe the many ways in which people choose to understand the same problems, and the exercise of power to influence those choices.

  1. A complex policymaking environment, not a policy cycle.

Things get more complicated when we move from the analysis of (a) key individuals to (b) the interaction between many individuals and organisations in a complex policymaking ‘system’ or ‘environment’. Policy scholars describe this environment in many different ways, using different concepts, but we can identify a core set of terms on which to focus:

  • Actors. There are many policy influencers and policymakers in many authoritative venues spread across many levels and types of government.
  • Institutions. Each venue has its own rules, including the formal, written-down, and easy to understand rules, versus the informal norms, cultures, and practices which are difficult to identify and describe.
  • Networks. Policymakers and influencers form relationships based on factors such as trust, authority, and the exchange of resources such as information and support.
  • Ideas. People communicate their beliefs, about policy problems and potential solutions, within a wider understanding of the world (often described as a paradigm or hegemony). Some of that understanding is taken-for-granted and not described, and people limit their analysis and argument according to the ways in which they think other people see the world.
  • Socioeconomic context and events. Policymakers often have to respond to policy conditions and events over which they have limited control, such geographic, demographic, and economic factors. These factors help produce non-routine ‘events’ alongside more predictable events such as elections (or other means to ensure a change of government).

In that context, policy scholarship focuses on producing theories to explain what happens when policymakers have limited control over their political systems and policymaking environments.

How far do these concepts travel?

As you can see, these concepts are widely applicable because they are abstract. What happens when we try to apply them to specific countries or case studies? For example:

  1. We talk about policymakers using cognitive, moral, and emotional shortcuts, but those shortcuts can vary profoundly across the globe.
  2. Each political system has a different collection of authoritative venues, formal and informal rules of politics, networks of power, ways to describe how the world works and should work, and socioeconomic context.

This is where our global network becomes valuable, to help us describe how we make sense of the same concepts in very different ways, and consider the extent to which such discussions are comparable.

Example: how do governments address an ‘era of governance’?

One way to foster such discussion is to consider how governments address the limits to their powers. These limits are described in many different ways, from a focus on ‘complexity’ and policy outcomes which ‘emerge’ from local activity (despite attempts by central governments to control outcomes), to a focus on the shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’.

As policy scholars, we can make several useful distinctions to describe these dynamics, such as to separate an actual shift in policymaking from government to governance, versus a shift in the way we now describe government.

Or, we can separate how governments can, do, and should address the limits to their powers.

I’d say that most policy scholarship focuses on how governments operate: how they actually address problems and what are the – intended and unintended – consequences.

However, these studies are trying to describe the tensions between what governments can do, given the limits I describe, and what they think they should do, given their position of authority and their need to describe their success.

For example, some systems may be more conducive to the support for ‘polycentric governance’, in which many authoritative venues cooperate to address problems, while others are built on the idea of central control and the concentration of authority in a small group of actors.

Therefore, the study of actual policymaking and outcomes will vary markedly according to the ways in which government actors feel they need to assert an image of control over a policy environment which is almost immune to control.

Perhaps an ‘era of governance’ describes some recognition by many governments that they need to find new ways to address their limited control over policy outcomes, both domestically and globally. However, an enduring theme in political science and policy studies is that we do not explain policymaking well if we restrict our attention to the ‘rational’ decisions of a small number of actors. Let’s not make too many assumptions about their power and motive.

Further reading:

The New Policy Sciences

How to Communicate Effectively with Policymakers

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking

Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.

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Filed under public policy

Policy and Policymaking in the UK – chapter 2 draft 1

Here is the first draft of the second chapter of my new book:

Chapter 2 20.8.13 Cairney Policy Policymaking UK (direct)

https://www.dropbox.com/s/jdvji823i47c6pv/Chapter%202%2016.8.13%20Cairney%20Policy%20Policymaking%20UK.pdf (dropbox)

Please feel free to comment and share. The introduction and bullet points are at the bottom. Here are some more fiddly things that I have been thinking about when writing the chapter:

1. Is it OK to reference a blog by a think tank like the CPS? It’s not evil or anything, but I think that some people might be put off. Bias is a big thing these days don’t you know.

2. Can I still use the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ when the Daily Mail recently reinforced the myth that it refers to a rule about domestic violence? You’ll have to search that one or take my word for it.

3. At one point, am I providing a big list of concepts without enough of a structure?

4. I succumbed to temptation and used one of the most over-used phrases in social research: complex. Oh, it’s complex. Remember it’s complex. Have you considered complexity? Life’s not simple, don’t you know? I tried to make up for it with a little definition box which differentiates between complex-as-complicated and complex-as-system (with particular properties identified and used to compare with other complex systems). I have also placed (in chapter 1) my flag on the phrase ‘complex government’ – a term used remarkably infrequently given the amount of times those words are used on their own.

5. Does this video (minus the suppository problem) sum up comprehensive rationality nicely? (courtesy of NormBlog – http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2013/08/the-suppository-of-all-wisdom.html)

Chapter 2 Policymaking in the UK: What is Policy and How is it Made?

This chapter examines:

  • The meaning of ‘policy’ and ‘public policy’
  • How we categorise, measure and describe public policy
  • The differences between comprehensive and bounded rationality
  • The effect of bounded rationality on policymaking
  • The links between comprehensive rationality and the Westminster model
  • The differences in policymaking styles between the UK and devolved governments

‘Policy’ and ‘public policy’ are difficult to define, but our attempts to give them meaning are important. For example, some definitions refer explicitly to the actions of government, while others identify a wider range of actors. Some talk about the difference between what governments do and what they choose not to do. Some discuss the difference between a range of activities, from the general statement of intent to the actual policy outcome. Overall, these definitions show us that the policy process is complex; the inability of one, concise, definition to capture our field of study demonstrates that complexity.

Even if we can settle on a definition of public policy, we may struggle to measure it. ‘Public policy’ is a collection of policies made at different times and, in many cases, different organisations.  Even when we break policymaking down into particular areas and issues, we find that policy is a collection of different instruments. In some cases, these instruments may be used to form a coherent strategy. For example, high taxes may be combined with public education and regulations on tobacco advertising to discourage smoking. In others, individual instruments may be used by different organisations with insufficient thought about how they will combine. For example, a Department for Education may face problems when coordinating the transition from key educational stages involving different actors (including early years, primary, secondary, and post-compulsory). This is a more regular feature of fragmented policymaking, in which different government departments may be responsible for individual aspects of policy and have different ideas about how to solve the problem. For example, in mental health, a high profile Home Office policy on detaining people with mental illnesses before they commit serious crimes may conflict with a Department of Health focus on challenging mental health stigma. Consequently, the ‘what is policy?’ question has an important practical element. To know what policy is in each area, we must know how to categorise, measure and describe a wide range of government activities.

This question also informs our discussion of how policy is made. The unrealistic idea of a single, coherent, policy strategy can be linked to ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which a single authoritative policymaker is at the heart of the process. This ideal-type is a traditional starting point for policy studies – as a way to highlight the implications of bounded rationality. For example, policymakers may respond to their own limitations by developing shortcuts to gather information, engaging in incremental rather than radical policy change (to address their uncertainty about the effects of their policies), and/ or focusing on some issues at the expense of most others (Simon, 1976; Lindblom 1959; 1979; Baumgartner and Jones, 1993).

A key aspect of comprehensive rationality is that the policy process is linear; there is a clear beginning and end, reached through a series of steps.  Policymaking is also cyclical – the end of one process marks the beginning of another. ‘Policy cycle’ sums up this process. It involves breaking policy down into a series of stages including agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation and evaluation. This overall image of policymaking is now less popular in academic research, but there is still considerable attention to individual stages – including the difference between formulation and implementation, the role of bodies other than Parliament in legitimation, and the politics of evaluating the success of policy.

A final important aspect of comprehensive rationality is that it demonstrates important similarities and differences between the UK and other political systems. On the one hand, we can associate its emphasis on sole, central control with the Westminster model’s focus on the centralisation of power in the core executive. In that context, a focus on bounded rationality shows us the practical limits to executive power. On the other, we find that policymakers in all political systems face similar constraints. A focus on bounded rationality shows us that governments are subject to universal policy processes that often produce common patterns of policymaking despite important differences in their institutional design. We can demonstrate these points by comparing the policymaking styles of the UK and devolved governments. In particular, the Scottish system was designed, in part, to diverge from ‘old Westminster’ – but UK and Scottish policy styles are often rather similar.


Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy