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How psychology can help politicians make better decisions

26 September 2016

An understanding of human psychology must be incorporated into the decision-making process so politicians can learn from their mistakes and make better decision in the future. That is the argument of a briefing produced for the 2016 party conference season by the British Psychological Society.

Making Better Decisions’ looks at patterns of thinking that can get in the way of making better decisions and proposes changes to political culture that would help politicians overcome them.

Professor Peter Kinderman, President of the BPS says:

“The government has committed to learning lessons from studying the 2.6m words in the Chilcot Report. While there are few overt references to psychological processes in the report’s recommendations, it is vital that detailed analysis of the impact of cognitive bias is part of the work involved in shedding light on how decision-making processes can be improved and bias alleviated in future.”

The biases identified in ‘Making Better Decisions’ are:

  • Confirmation bias – We tend to look for and remember information that fits with their existing expectations and ignore or dismiss information that does not.
  • Groupthink – When we are deeply involved in a close-knit group the desire for unanimity can override our motivation to consider alternative courses of action.
  • Cognitive dissonance – When we encounter information that challenges our existing views it can make us anxious. We tend to look for the easiest way of dispelling this anxiety, and that can often be by ignoring the new information.
  • Hindsight bias – We tend to think that something that has happened must have been predictable in advance, even where there is no basis for thinking this, and that stops us learning from our mistakes.

To help us understand and overcome these biases ‘Making Better Decisions’ calls for changes to our political culture, the way evidence is used and how decisions are made:

Use first-hand evidence – Many of the errors and biases concern the ways in which people incorporate information into decision making. So it is important that politicians receive unbiased advice from independent scientific advisers. Psychology can provide independent scientific evidence and expertise in human behaviour across the many areas of government business and inquiry.

Foster a culture of transparency and openness – To improve decision making organisations need to develop a culture where people feel safe raising concerns and acting on errors. They must also be transparent, which means taking a diagnostic approach to identify patterns of what is going wrong and how to improve.

Encourage diversity to combat groupthink – A diverse workforce can mitigate the effects of groupthink. Research suggests that if visible differences in a group rise above 30 per cent it enables members to explore controversial issues or alternative solutions through a shift in identity away from group membership and towards the task.

Establish support mechanisms for political leaders – Leaders need to recognise their own biases, blind-spots and ways of responding to pressure or rejection. Parliamentarians should be encouraged to seek ways of understanding themselves better. Support should be offered during induction and regularly through their careers, as happens in many other countries.

‘Making Better Decisions’ says the same cognitive biases affect voters too. A combination of confirmation bias, groupthink and the reaction to cognitive dissonance could explain why both sides of the Brexit debate were convinced that public opinion was on their side.

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