Psychologists have shown that ordinary citizens judge policies based upon the meaning they attach to it, rather than undertaking a rigorous ‘rational’ analysis. We often evaluate policies on an unconscious, intuitive level, and emotion and affect play a crucial part. This understanding of behaviour explains the diversity and emotivity of judgments about public policy issues, and argues against the reduction of policy judgments to scientific evidence or to material self-interest, writes Richard D. French.
The most common assumption on the part of political theorists, many political scientists, as well as a host of other actors such as civil servants, editorial writers, and empirical researchers of all kinds, is that citizens judge policy in the same way as they imagine they themselves do – by explicit epistemological standards (they would appeal to ‘science’ or ‘evidence’ or ‘principle’). But the most politically significant judgments are based upon the meaning of the policy as apprehended by citizens, not in terms of some kind of propositionally rigorous analysis, such as a demonstrated causal relationship among variables or a deduction from first principles. And the moment of judgment is most often at the point of the announcement of the policy, well before any of its results are likely to be evident.
Political psychologists, cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists have moved well beyond the rationalist assumptions extant in mainstream political theory and in the evidence-based policy movement. They help us to grasp how meaning emerges.
How do we judge policies?
Classic decision theory oversimplified the process of judgment and decision making. It valued analytical rationality – conscious reflective deliberation – over emotion and intuition. Research since 1975 has shown that:
(1) unconscious, intuitive decision making can outperform conscious deliberation on certain tasks, even by the criteria of standard instrumentalism;
(2) both conscious and unconscious processes (‘dual processes’ or ‘the two systems framework’ or ‘online/offline processing’ or ‘hot/cold cognition’ or ‘the rider and the elephant’) may operate in judgment and decision making, sometimes opposing one another;
(3) the operation of these dual processes can be traced to different parts of the brain;
(4) System 1, or unconscious processing, is experience-dependent, rapid, non-semantic, not correlated with intelligence, and reflexive or spontaneous;
(5) System 1 tends to precede and dominate the explicit deliberation of System 2, though not inevitably so, and determines many decisions by its sole operation;
(6) System 1 is not open to introspection and thus not to control by the subject;
(7) System 1 is subject to ‘the primacy of affect’ – emotion is crucial to its functioning;
(8) System 1 functions on perceptions (so-called ‘thin slices’) which are often unconscious (so-called ‘hot cognition’) and insufficient in depth or completeness to support reflective deliberation, but which nevertheless often serve the subject efficiently.
So in our routine judgments, we employ System 1 most of the time. That is, we experience, rather than reason toward, a spontaneous intuitive judgment, based upon our emotional reactions to similar configurations of circumstance in the past. If we have to explain our judgment, we may well rationalise it in terms which reconstruct a more ‘rational’ process. More important, on occasions when the material or emotional stakes are high, we employ System 2, not simply to rationalise a previously intuited decision, but to reconsider our initial intuitions in light of all the factors and circumstances. In such a case, we employ the conscious, effortful, ‘cold’ cognitive resources, the use of which rationalist models of policy-making construe as routine. System 1 dominates, though we must hope that it does not monopolise, our decision-making and that of our political masters.
If many judgments by citizens minimise, or circumvent entirely, conscious analysis against decision criteria underwritten by organised knowledge, articulated self-interest, or moral theory, then how do citizens make judgments?
The way to think about explicit moral or prescriptive judgments is not to think of them always as an analytically rational search for truth, but as a functional accommodation with or coping mechanism for the diverse and culturally sanctioned standards of the social environment. That is, the ‘rules and principles invoked’ can be thought of as posterior to the rapid intuitions which are usually determinative.
Psychologists Haidt and Kesebir argue that intuitive judgments ‘are a kind of social-perceptual system that enables people to perceive the emergent social facts that constitute the cultures within which they live.’ They see that communities are built upon moral systems which act to enable a minimum of solidarity and suppress selfishness. Moral systems ‘are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible.’
These moral systems emerge within an inherently pluralist community (that is, a milieu which comprehends internally contradictory values) and the community’s flourishing depends upon the ability of its leaders to manage the inevitable tensions. It is a mistake to imagine that values may be compellingly reduced through deductive abstraction to a single monolithic trump such as justice or liberty. It is not primarily logical argument which will move citizens to sacrifice parts of their faith or principles in favor of a modus vivendi. Rather it is the task of social and political leadership to fashion that consensus, or more accurately, compromise, in light of their sense of the diverse emotionally constituted moral intuitions in play in a community.
If we want to identify some elements of the judgments tacitly employed by citizens in judging policy outputs, we have to sacrifice much of what the academy has taken for granted about such judgments: that they involve, or should involve, self-conscious and willed (System 2) application of scientific or instrumental or moral theory to the particulars of a situation.
Policymaking as emotion, publicity and performance
I have attempted to adduce a moral psychology which makes sense of the diversity and emotivity of judgments about public policy issues. I am arguing that what we now know about human psychology militates against the project of reducing moral foundations to a single pillar, or policy judgments to the scientific evidence or to material self-interest, or expecting conviction to emerge from the end of a long, abstract and complex chain of deductive logic.
Some political theorists and advocates of knowledge-for-policy may recognize that there is a need to balance competing principle and negotiate compromises between interests. However, this recognition remains faithful to the ideal that policymaking is essentially a matter of analysis and not of emotion or intuition. The management of principles and compromises will not be politically viable without a lively sense of the way citizens are likely to read and react to them, and that requires sensitivity to emotion, publicity and performance as much as it does to knowledge and principles.
If there is a prospect for improving public policy, it depends not only upon better ideas but also upon the practices required to adopt and implement such ideas. As the British Minister Richard Crossman wrote, ‘politics isn’t just working out policies but putting them over.’ That the latter process is untidy, often unedifying, and inevitably frustrating does not justify retreat into the comfort of professional dogma, conventional pieties, or academic fashions about the ways of judgment in public life.
Note: This article is based on a longer version in the Political Quarterly entitled “How Do We Judge Policies?“. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Quinn Dombrowski
Richard D. French is Chairholder of the CN Paul M. Tellier Chair on Business and Public Policy at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, Canada.