Behavioral science for wicked problems - navigating complexity, uncertainty and information overload

The problem

Facing wicked problems, more information rarely solves the essential problem we humans face: the outcomes of our actions are impossible to predict with certainty. Even if we understood a problem, there would never be a perfect solution as parameters keep changing.

To understand our constantly changing environment, insurmountable amounts of information products are sent our way. But most of analyses lack the rigour to be conclusive. And when we search for high quality syntheses, they aren't tailored to our specific needs and often hidden behind paywalls.

Given our limited time to act, we have to make decisions based on our current understanding of the world. But how to make well-informed guesses in fast-paced environments that perform better than chance and allow us to learn from them?

Our solution

Decision-making at any level is subject to human behaviour. We propose a set of boosting techniques, anchored in state-of-the-art behavioural science, to help you and your team think about complex problems and make decisions in the face of uncertainty and information overload.

Participants will

  • Learn about mental models to navigate complex systems
  • Train their meta-cognition to recognize situations that require specific tools
  • Learn about simple concepts for productive group decision-making
  • Apply simple decision-making tools to solve a current problem they are facing

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Project partners

Description

Target audience: Target audience: individuals, teams, groups and networks of policy actors

Project lead: Maxime Stauffer

Duration of the exercise: 2 hours

More and better information does not necessarily translate into better decision-making. Yet, political decision-makers are bombarded with new information every day. This project focuses on empowering decision-makers to help them navigate complex problems efficiently by selecting, processing and exchanging information effectively.

International and national decision-makers, often, yet not always, benefit from in-depth analyses of policy problems (e.g. SDGs) and of the impact and cost of policies. However, this production of evidence is not necessarily coordinated. It is often published behind paywalls, rarely synthesised, seldom tailored to decision needs, and different reports can provide conflicting recommendations. Additionally, the production of evidence also competes against other information sources such as partisan information, false information, or less rigorous analyses.

As a result, political decision-makers may receive abundant information but struggle to turn it into effective policy change. A typical example is climate change. With decades of research, evidence and tools on climate change, policy change only happens very slowly if at all. It has been repeated and empirically validated that one of the mechanisms that prevent effective policy change in light of new information lie in the dynamics of information processing. That is “how bounded-rational policy actors judge, select, use and remember information”. In other words, how do time-constrained, non-omniscient actors deal with information overload?

While many actors, such as NGOs and academics, focus on decision-making support through the provision of information in the form of reports, new evidence or better predictions, this project hopes to support the behavioural reality of decision-making. Advances in psychology and neurosciences have shed light on boosting techniques that equip decision-makers with tools and concepts to make fast and accurate decisions in the face of uncertainty. As such, the strategy behind this project is not about providing better or more information. The strategy is about improving decision-makers’ capacity to process information and navigate uncertain environments.

We propose a set of simple and efficient boosting techniques that can be easily used by any decision-maker to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and information overload. The approach is based on empowerment instead of prescription. The tools will cover the following dimensions: (1) judging and selecting information; (2) sharing information; and (3) using information.

The tools are anchored in recent advances in psychological research. Given that political decision- making, whether it is at a local, national or international level, is always subject to human behaviour, these tools likely generalise and thus are useful for every decision-maker. This solution differs from and complements pieces of evidence on policy problems and solutions which often are context-specific and thus cannot necessarily be imported into every context.

Key references

Greene, M. T., & Papalambros, P. Y. (2016, March). A cognitive framework for engineering systems thinking. In 2016 Conference on Systems Engineering Research (pp. 1-7). https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/42_greene_a_cognitive_framework_for_engineering_systems_thinking_1.pdf

Hertwig, R., Pleskac, T. J., & Pachur, T. (2019). Taming Uncertainty. MIT Press. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/11114.001.0001

Hertwig, R., & Grüne-Yanoff, T. (2017). Nudging and Boosting: Steering or Empowering Good Decisions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(6), 973–986. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617702496

Janssen, M., & van der Voort, H. (2020). Agile and adaptive governance in crisis response: Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Information Management, 55, 102180. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2020.102180

Jones, B. D., & Baumgartner, F. R. (2005). The politics of attention: How government prioritizes problems. University of Chicago Press. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/P/bo3644482.html

Wegmann, R. M., & Schärrer, L. (2020). Outpacing the pandemic? A factorial survey on decision speed of COVID-19 task forces. Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance, 7(2), 191–202. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOEPP-05-2020-0089