Cognitive Bias and Policy
Written by Kim Wiljanen
Cognitive biases are largely unconscious responses that underlie all of our thoughts and actions. They are so tightly woven within the persona and mental processes that they are almost invisible or are viewed as a character trait. Many people may not even be aware that they exist. Bias is often easier to see in others than in ourselves.
Johnson, Blumstein, Fowler and Haselton (2013) believe that cognitive biases are part of the natural selection process that is meant to protect individuals from danger. Their Error Management Theory (EMT) posits that cognitive biases are a form of adaptive behavior patterns that generate caution and protective habits in individuals as a response to danger or as a means of coping in an uncertain environment (pp. 476-477). Similar to the well-known “fight or flight” syndrome, we incorporate a variety of defensive behaviors into our lives such as looking both ways before we cross the street or watching people in a room full of strangers. Biases help individuals sort out conflicting information and balance options when making decisions. Of course, this is a selective process and the decision will support and validate the personal interest of the individual (Sharek, Schoen & Lowenstein, 2012, p.368).
Goodmundsson and Lechner (2013) performed a study in Iceland to see how biases of entrepreneurs affected the success rate in start-up companies. They found that a certain amount of overconfidence and distrust often led to a good success rate. Overconfidence and optimism were not quite as conducive to success because the entrepreneurs failed to understand the market and maneuver around the problems. Kahneman (2011) noted an example of one optimistic couple that took over a failing business and were confident in their ability to succeed six or seven predecessors could not (pp. 271-272).
Across the years, Kahneman and Tversky have studied the nature and effect of biases and human nature in uncertain situations. This field is called behavioral economics and it analyzes a number of different thought patterns in conjunction with risk management and prediction. (Kahneman, 2011; Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). One of their theories is that the possibility of gain will have more influence on a person’s decision than the chance of loss or the utility of the situation. Kahneman (2011) always emphasizes the need for awareness of biases, and empirical data for predicting outcomes. Understanding the influence of biases and misconceptions is a means of controlling them.
The problems with cognitive biases is that they also influence decisions in ways that may not be appropriate, cause repeated mistakes because they are habitual, and can cause backlashes when applied to large settings ( Norman & Delfin, 2012). Biases are painted with a broad brush and left open for interpretation. In many ways, they are translated as either/or options and lead to miscalculations, racial profiling and hate crimes. In the emotional climate of the post- 9/11 society, a line has been drawn between the general populace and immigrants. Immigrants are different and different means they are a threat. There is a definite linkage between immigration and imminent threat to our society whether as terrorists or part of the drug cartels (Norman & Delfin, 2012 pp. 384-386). Policy writers need to fully understand the nature of biases, the emotional climate of the culture and how the policies are framed for the public (Norman & Delfin, 2012 ; Kahneman, 2011).
While some biases may not be noticed, Daniel Gilbert hypothesized that there are four situations that will arouse the general public. These are intentional disruptive actions by individuals, an immediate threat to society, rapid change and moral issues (Norman & Delfin, 2012, pp. 378-384). This will explain why it is easier to focus the public eye on immigration than it is to maintain momentum in regards to global warming (Norman & Delfin, 2012). Policy makers often use biased judgments as a political tool in the ways they shape their press releases and the issues that they emphasize (Norman & Delfin, 2012). Thus we have an intense fight against immigrants because they are different and they may be terrorists or belong to the drug cartel. These attitudes are transferred to the general population and become polarized along with serious issues of racial profiling.
Awareness is the first step in understanding how biases work can show an individual how they apply in a given situation and greater recognition of why they may or may not work (Norman & Delfin, 2013). This can avoid future problems, as well as repeating past mistakes. Awareness also allows discussion regarding the goal and viability of the approach without a dogmatic adherence to one course of action. This can actually improve chances of success. Awareness can also provide insight into past mistakes and aid problem-solving (Norman & Delfin, 2013, p.373).
Braman, S. (2011). Defining information policy. Available from Wayne State University DOAJ Retrieved 8/25/13 http://jip.vmhost.psu.edu/ojs/index.php/jip/article/view/19
Gudmundsson, S. V., and Lechner, C. (2013). Cognitive biases, organization, and entrepreneurial firm survival. European Management Journal, 31(3), 278-294. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2013.01.001
Johnson, D. D. P., Blumstein, D. T., Fowler, J. H., & Haselton, M. G. (2013). The evolution of error: error management, cognitive constraints, and adaptive decision-making biases. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 28(8), 474-481. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2013.05.014
Kahneman, D. (2011). Think Fast/Think Slow (e-book ed.). New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kahneman, D., and Tversky, Amos. (1979). Prospect theory: an analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47(2), 33. Retrieved from http://www.hss.caltech.edu/~camerer/Ec101/ProspectTheory.pdf
Norman, E. R., and Delfin, Rafael. (2012). Wizards under uncertainty: cognitive biases, threat assessment, and misjudgments in policy making. [Critical essay]. Politics & Policy, 40(3), 369+. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-1346.2012.00356.x
Sharek, Z. (2012). Bias in the evaluation of conflict of interest policies. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 40, 368. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.wayne.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edslex&AN=edslex7ED3FA7B&site=eds-live&scope=site