Monday, April 10, 2017

The failings of the best and the brightest

Behavioural psychologists point to certain cognitive biases that afflict human mind and spares none. Even among the smartest people I have interacted, there is at least one of the following three biases that deeply cloud their perceptions. Just a handful of people manage to escape this trap, being cognisant of these impulses and having the resolve to overcome them. I will call them genius. 

1. Induction bias

Human being are fundamentally inductive beings, prone to draw generalisable conclusions from their specific experiences. It is very difficult to recalibrate the lens of logic when applying inductive reasoning. Important dimensions get glossed over, most often because the context and its structure varies, often very widely. And without having been in that context, it is very difficult to appreciate the nuances. 

The most classic such inductive reasoning bias comes from those working in the private sector who tend to apply similar set of operational principles to public sector issues. They see outsourcing services, aligning incentives of agents, defining targets and efficiency parameters, making payments based on outcomes, work-flow automation and so on as natural accompaniments in the public sector. Truth to say, public sector could do with all of these, in varying degrees. But there is some distance between "could" and "would". 

Similar failings apply to other generalisations, especially when they involve tackling complex public policy challenges. And in most of these cases, difficulty in appreciation of the context is the major contributor to the difference in perceptions. 

2. Anecdote bias

Human beings suffer from representative and anchoring biases, which make us crystallize our views on an issue from a few personal experiences and the limited examples that immediately come to our mind while discussing that issue. Such biases prevent us from realizing that our exposure is but just one data point and the particular outcome may have been deeply influenced by its specific context.

People who travel widely and engage with experiences during these travels or who are integrated to the global seminar/conference circuits are especially vulnerable to this bias. Politicians belong to the former and international development cosmopolitans to the latter. An innovative approach or idea to overcome a supposedly intractable problem that you have seen either directly or in a presentation is likely to stick deep and long in our memory. 

Unfortunately, most often such success is circumscribed in place, time, supervisory effort, and context. In case of presentations, especially on complex public or social issues, they are most often half-truths. It may be presumptuous to generalize from such experiences.

3. Achievement bias

It is a common feature that people are strongly attached to their perceived personal ‘achievements’. It means that their comprehension of the particular issue is very deeply influenced, or clouded, by their prior experience. 

Two cognitive biases amplify the attachment to personal experiences. The availability bias anchors human mind to evaluate a topic based on the examples available and entrenched in our memory. The over-estimation bias makes us repose far higher subjective confidence on our own judgements (in this case of the 'achievement'), than their objective accuracy would suggest. Accordingly, in any such achievement, the ‘success’ elements get amplified even as the ‘failing’ dimensions are underplayed.

Policy makers and practitioners, especially the successful and competent ones, are vulnerable to this. Even the most successful ones are likely to have only a handful of 'successes' from among the several initiatives that they would have tried over a career. They invariably advocate either its particular replication or generalise inferences for application in other problems. Almost always, the contribution of the specific individual (the extraordinary 'personal' energy, unavailable in business as usual contexts) and confluence of favourable environmental factors to its success gets glossed over. The median public system is most likely to struggle to get the initiative past the post. 

While there is some overlap among the three biases, there are also subtle differences as reflected in the categories afflicted by each.

1 comment:

Karthik Dinne said...

Other is 'expertise bias'. People define problems in terms of their field of expertise.

For example, a pedagogy specialist defines major problem in education as that of 'lack of appropriate pedagogy', while being unappreciative of other aspects of education.

This has two implications

1. Policy discourse of constraints emanating from 'expert bias' may not be reflective of actual constraints. In such case, focusing efforts on incorrectly identified constraints, crowds out the progress on other important aspects, the ones that really matter.

2. Relevance in 'specialist administrators debate'. Many argue for entry of specialists in administration. But if those specialists have parochial views about the sector confining only to their areas of expertise (i.e, if they aren't generalists along with being a specialist), the situation won't be any better.

Reasons why a pedagogy expert needn't make a good education secretary and so on!