Politicians are people, too — with all the same decision-making quirks as the rest of us.

Mark Clayton Hand
5 min readMay 15, 2019

For just a paragraph, imagine you are a state Senator. You wake up at 5am to tape a radio interview, have three fundraising meetings over coffee, check in with your office staff, have a few more fundraising meetings, get briefed on a committee hearing, and head to the hearing at three. As you walk to the hearing room, you encounter the tail end of a long line of people. As you walk past them, a few smile at you; most glower. Your stomach sinks as you realize all of these people are here to testify to your committee — it is going to be a much longer night than you had planned. Given that you are expected by leadership to get this bill out of committee by next week with two more votes than you have right now, you will need to get more clever than you feel right now. Then you realize you will need to find something to eat, because you were too busy fundraising at lunch to shovel in enough food to make up for having missed breakfast (why didn’t you turn one of those coffees into breakfast?).

Politicians are people, too: They are subject to the same biological limitations as the rest of us. They are bound by the same cognitive limitations, too. And while researchers have done quite a bit of work on how our cognitive biases might affect us as voters and employees and consumers, there has been little attention given to how those biases might affect the decision-making of our political leaders. Inspired by the work of @ideas42, here is a first stab at how some common cognitive biases play into political campaigns and policymaking.

Choice Overload

Too many choices doesn’t make us happier — it just stresses us out. Policymakers have to make constant decisions about which problems to focus their energy and attention on. Then, depending on how problems are framed, there is a range of solutions that might be applied. Then there are a number of stakeholders to consider, including party leadership, current constituents, future constituents, committee colleagues, and donors (etc.!). Reducing choice overload requires setting up useful constraints: In policymakers’ case, that often means voicing the interests of one stakeholder group, such as your constituents, to justify moving focus away from an issue your party leadership wants…