Knowing your audience

Rational decision-making? It just doesn’t work that way…

By 24 September 2009

The more I learn about the way people make decisions, the more I wish I’d studied psychology.

We’ve evolved, but not as much as we think we have. Or at least our brains are still very much running mainly on gut instinct and instant reaction. It’s a situation that has served us well in the past, but isn’t necessarily appropriate to making rational decisions from the wealth of varied choices that we often have on offer today.

Policymakers have a plethora of stakeholders out there, and a paucity of resources. They have an unenviable job, sorting the wheat from the chaff, and choosing which among all the worthwhile research proposals to fund and support.

Irrationality by psychology professor Stewart Sutherland was first published in 1992, but is still a gripping (and funny) read nearly twenty years later. It describes many experiments that prove time and time again how we are all swayed by forces beyond our control unless we actively avoid the traps. With chapters titles that include ‘Ignoring the evidence’, ‘Distorting the evidence’, and ‘Misinterpreting the evidence’, there is something to make anyone’s jaw drop in disbelief.

Even if it doesn’t provide clear instructions about how to ensure a policymaker makes the decision that you want, it certainly provides clues to why they might not. For example, Sutherland shows just how strongly we resist changing our minds about a decision once we have said it in public, a situation that politicians and policymakers get bounced into all the time.

There are good lessons for researchers too. Experiments showed how committees or meetings made up of like-minded people not only fail to properly consider evidence that is contrary to their current opinion, finding myriad ways to discount its credibility, but also emerge having taken a collective position on an issue that is stronger than the position that any of the group members hold individually. If you are forming a steering or oversight committee and want it done properly, do make sure you include people who genuinely hold a range of different opinions and views. If you are creating an interdisciplinary team to carry out a research project, do consider finding room for a pyschologist. And do read the book. You won’t regret it and you may even make better decisions yourself as a result.