Using cognitive science research to redesign policy decision making systems

Climate change is back on the political agenda and public support for action on climate change is at its highest level since 2007. But can we expect our political institutions to be able to respond in the time and scale needed given their past failures? Rather than merely policy reform do we need to reform the system of government itself? In today’s post Celia Green and Andrew Joyce discuss how cognitive science research could be used in the redesign of our political institutions to enable better decision making processes.

Over the last 40 years governments globally have failed to implement effective climate change mitigation policies and badly regressed on other environmental and social policies. This has been especially evident in Australia over the last decade with marked policy paralysis on climate change. The climate policy debate leading into the next federal election is offering targets and ideas that would have been appropriate 30 years ago given the rate of increase of CO2 emissions. Further, many of the mitigation technologies currently being suggested (such as carbon capture and storage) are not yet scalable and the radical social and economic change required in the absence of technological solutions is not being taken seriously by governments and the public alike. What climate science is demanding now seems unachievable and many potentially catastrophic climate change impacts stemming from governments’ past failures to act are now unavoidable. If we continue down this path and The Paris Agreement targets are not met, we face ever increasing climate change risks.  It is naïve to think that the same structures and institutions that have ignored the threat of climate change would promote the radical change required to adapt to the new reality of increased global temperatures and related environmental impacts. Significant change in our political institutions is required to help reframe not only policy options but to foster decision making capabilities to effectively respond to climate crisis.

While there is much to be gloomy about, one positive is that there is increasing public support for action on climate change. Some of the credit for this belongs to research and advocacy groups that have used the research on cognitive science to frame messages on climate change that engender positive responses. This same research on cognitive science could be used to shape the institutions of government.

Over the last 30-40 years a significant body of research has found that the way humans make decisions differs from what might logically be expected. There are common short cuts and biases in thinking that all humans display. One such cognitive bias described by Daniel Kahneman, a leader in cognitive science research, is the WYSIATI bias or “What you see is all there is”. This bias shows how human decision making is often irrational and that we form judgments and impressions based on material we have at hand without stopping to consider that there might be things we still don’t know. Another potentially problematic bias is the anchoring bias. In social decisions the anchoring bias has shown that people estimate the beliefs of others by first anchoring from their own beliefs and then adjusting accordingly. Even when one realises that other people will have differing perspectives, the end result of making this adjustment is always biased towards one’s own initial beliefs. There are many other well known cognitive biases such as inferring causal relationships where they don’t exist, inability to ascertain risk accurately and understand rare events, optimism bias, correspondence bias, loss aversion, anger leading to reduced depth of processing, and the halo effect for one side of politics.

All humans exhibit these biases to certain degrees. The challenge is that current structures of government maximise rather than minimise these biases. Manifestation of these biases is readily evident in the way politicians have understood and communicated their understanding (or lack thereof) of climate change and highlights the need for processes and structures that can mitigate these biases. Decision making is heavily influenced by personal, visual, emotive sources of information. Cognitive biases are unconscious, so politicians may not be aware of the degree to which they are influenced by their environment. From a cognitive science perspective, direct communication and time spent with politicians can have a critical impact on how they absorb and process information to frame problems and responses to problems.  Pressure to reform rules around political donations stems from this. Fundraising for their own party is an opportunity time cost for politicians, mixing with people that have similar views rather than being exposed to a broader cross section of the community. Given that diversity of opinion is an important factor in making  better decisions, this is a problem for both government and citizens. 

Processes to ensure that a wider cross section of the community has access to politicians such as Almadalen week in Sweden (an annual forum where politicians mix with a wide range of stakeholders such as lobbyists, NGO representatives, employees from regional and national organisations, and the general public) could be structured into the political process. Some decision making biases, particularly around decisions involving uncertainty and risk, are very difficult to mitigate or control in a political system where non-experts are voted in and often put in charge of making complex decisions in a chaotic and busy environment. Entire research programs are devoted to the problem of the evidence-policy gap and how to ensure the best research evidence is used in complex policy decisions. There are however some immediate strategies which could be used to reduce some of the naturally occurring cognitive biases which impact decision making, including:

  • Donation reforms and structures to increase community access to politicians to help reduce the problem of WYSIAYG bias.

  • The use of independent bodies to set environmental and social welfare indicators and targets based on science rather than politics, akin to the role of the Reserve Bank’s setting of interest rates.

  • Ensuring that only members of parliament with a minimum level of knowledge on a topic can vote on relevant legislation (e.g. performing online training and a quiz on climate change as a prerequisite to voting on relevant legislation similar to online training on health and safety for organisational employees).

These ideas may seem radical and potentially difficult to implement, but they are needed to start conversations on the decision making systems change required to address the large scale failing of our institutions to address the risk of climate change. And hopefully, they will spur cognitive scientists to apply their work on decision making to the design and function of our parliamentary systems and other types of government institutions.

Celia Green is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Research Excellence in Disability and Health, UNSW. Andrew Joyce is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University.