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

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.

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 you to focus on.

Legislators aren’t superhuman; they have to take mental breaks in addition to physical breaks. This fact is often used as a weapon: Filibustering bills is in part an effort to mentally and physically wear down political opponents. But it can be used constructively, too, by designing legislators’ days and sessions for maximum decision-making capacity, by subordinating less important procedural decisions to staff, or eliminating less important decisions entirely. All this applies in a campaign context, as well: Constant decision-making by campaign staff may mean suboptimal decisions.

What is the process by which someone chooses to run for office? What minor barriers exist, especially for underrepresented groups? What are the micro-processes by which policymakers get and process information, or to spending time with colleagues? Newt Gingrich made a special effort in the 1990s to get Republican congressional leaders to live primarily in their districts; that made it much less likely that Republican and Democratic congressional leaders would get to know each other, in no small part given the extra hassle required to meet and spend time with someone from the other party.

Says ideas42: “We all have multiple identities — for instance, someone can be a mother, a lawyer, a daughter, and a gardener — and each identity may carry different goals and values. Our perceptions, choices, and actions are often made in accordance with the identity (and its associated values) that is most salient to us in our moment of choice.”

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?

One of the more active areas of literature in public policy scholarship is the role of attention. We don’t have enough of it, and there is an ever-increasing amount of information to process. Levels of media and committee attention can in part predict the passage of bills, for example. Some scholars believe that we have had things backwards: Rather than a market for information, the policy environment is actually a market for individuals’ attention. Policymakers may miss important information because of a lack of attention, and this might be heightened by others’ active efforts to distract them from an issue or keep their focus on another issue. The President’s Daily Brief is one example of how the CIA has worked to make sure a president doesn’t miss an important issue because of over-focus on another.

Humans over-value what we already possess, causing us to miss opportunities that demand giving something up. Political candidates hesitate to abandon a previously winning electoral coalition. They overweight the importance of consistency, and miss the chance to take new positions on an issue. They hesitate to fire poorly performing or scandal-ridden staff members. They are more afraid of losing their current job than excited about winning another one. And they may hold on too tightly to donors, when they could get value from sharing those donors with like-minded campaigns. From a policy perspective, programs that are working poorly might be continued because the costs of dropping them are more salient than the benefits and because new policy directions are viewed as riskier than they are. Victory in getting a policy through one chamber might make a policymaker hesitant to modify it so as to get it passed in another.

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.

PhD Student at UT-Austin • More at markclaytonhand.com

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