How Leaders Communicate

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Evidence-based policy is the catchcry. It is the gold-standard ideal based on the notion that leaders and managers coolly make decisions based on a rational analysis and assessment of the facts. It is an inherent component of Aristotle’s idea of logos.

But we humans somehow get in the way of achieving the ideal.

In 2002, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, turned the world of economics on its head by winning the Nobel Prize in the field. How could a psychologist win the biggest prize in economics? The award was acknowledgment of the growing interest into the study of behavioural economics. It explores the idea that the efforts to make rational choices are distorted by all sorts of mental tricks.

Kahneman argues that the world works less by ‘rational choice’ than by a ‘bounded rationality’. Another thinker, Max Bazerman of Harvard, says that in a complex world – people rely on simplifying strategies like using mental rules of thumb or heuristics to form judgments and make decisions.

But surely our leaders and mangers don’t make these mistakes!

A 2013 study by Dan Kahan and his colleagues of Yale Law School’s cultural cognition project found that numerate people use their quantitative reasoning selectively to interpret data consistent with their political beliefs.

Their study put to the test two competing hypotheses. The Identity-protective Cognition Thesis argues that cultural conflict gets in the way of reasoning. Alternatively, the Science Comprehension Thesis postulates that it is faulty reasoning that is disabling and it’s caused by a lack of numeracy skills. If the Science thesis is right, more knowledgeable people should come up trumps in their interpretation of the data.

Kahan and his colleagues “presented subjects with a difficult problem that turned on their ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data. As expected, subjects highest in Numeracy — a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information — did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized — and even less accurate — when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. But contrary to the prediction of Science Comprehension Thesis, such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in Numeracy; instead, it increased.”

Perhaps Kahan’s paper helps explain why so many otherwise intelligent people reject the evidence about climate change.