Psychological Studies of Policy Reasoning

The New York Times had an article on the difficulties that the public has to understand complex policy proposals – I’m Right (For Some Reason). The points in the article relate directly to the research I’ve been doing at Liverpool on the IMPACT Project, for we decompose a policy proposal into its constituent parts for examination and improved understanding. See our tool live: Structured Consultation Tool
Policy proposals are often presented in an encapsulated form (a sound bite). And those receiving it presume that they understand it, the illusion of explanatory depth discussed in a recent article by Frank Keil (a psychology professor at Cornell when and where I was a Linguistics PhD student). This is the illusion where people believe they understand a complex phenomena with greater precision, coherence, and depth than they actually do; they overestimate their understanding. To philosophers, this is hardly a new phenomena, but showing it experimentally is a new result.
In research about public policy, the NY Times authors, Sloman and Fernbach, describe experiments where people state a position and then had to justify it. The results showed that participants softened their views as a result, for their efforts to justify it highlighted the limits of their understanding. Rather than statements of policy proposals, they suggest:

Instead, we voters need to be more mindful that issues are complicated and challenge ourselves to break down the policy proposals on both sides into their component parts. We have to then imagine how these ideas would work in the real world — and then make a choice: to either moderate our positions on policies we don’t really understand, as research suggests we will, or try to improve our understanding.

Breaking down policy proposals into component parts for further investigation and understanding is exactly what we’ve been doing in the IMPACT Project.
This article and the references to further literature are not only intrinsically interesting, but they also give me additional ways of thinking about these issues and an evaluative paradigm for our tools.

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