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

Mark Clayton Hand
May 15, 2019 · 5 min read
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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

Cognitive Depletion & Decision Fatigue

Hassle Factors


Might legislators also behave differently depending on how they are identity-primed? When and under what conditions do they view themselves as Senate Members versus party members? As party members versus representatives of their entire constituencies, regardless of party? And might priming minority identities in recruiting potential candidates backfire?

Limited Attention

Loss Aversion

There is a tremendous amount of work left to be done here — the biases covered above are only half of the biases listed on the website of just one of the great consulting firms that apply behavioral science to policymaking. You probably have ideas about how we might help politicians avoid some other others; please share them in the comments!

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash.

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