Lesson #5 from Decision Science: a New Resource for Police Leaders. This lesson is an excerpt and you can download the full guide here.
Police performance depends on millions of decisions – at the frontline and in the board room. Can the sector strengthen its decision-making muscles by harnessing insights from decision sciences?
Key Lesson #5: Know Your Limits
There is now a huge literature on ‘biases and heuristics’: the mental shortcuts and cognition processes that most commonly lead decision-makers astray (while also saving valuable headspace for other work). Three findings that are most often replicated in studies across domains are:
- We tend to go with the flow (default). In 2012, the British government was concerned that less than half of workers (47 per cent) had enrolled in pension schemes. They then made a simple policy change that has transformed pensions saving in the UK. Until 2012, employees had simply been given the option to enrol in a pension scheme. But having seen studies showing that we tend to prefer going with the flow, rather than making active decisions, government decided that all workers would have to automatically enrol in a pension scheme. In 2019, more than three quarters (77 per cent) of British employees were enrolled in a pension scheme. Even though people were given the same choice, the framing of decisions led to radically different results.
- We are pretty bad at understanding probabilities (and risks) and we are strongly influenced by the ways that statistical probabilities are presented to us. In general, we understand what odds mean reasonably well when they are presented as frequencies (eg, one in 10 people) but not as percentages. A US study of juror decision-making worryingly found that a standard way of presenting DNA match information (using percentages) resulted in 50 less guilty verdicts (something for both prosecutors and defence lawyers to think about). Or would it be clearer if I said that using percentages led to five in ten verdicts being guilty verdicts, but using a frequency description just over three in ten verdicts came in as guilty…
- We tend to be overconfident of our own abilities. Have you ever wondered why your projects keep coming in late and over budget? You aren’t alone! In a study of more 100 major government infrastructure projects, nine out of ten projects underestimated costs and the average cost overruns for rail projects was 45 per cent, tunnels and bridges 34 per cent and roads 20 per cent. They also overestimated the number of people who would use the new infrastructure dramatically. This was for two reasons. First, the ‘so-called’ superiority illusion. When they assess their driving skills, the vast majority of people in US, Swedish and UK studies say that they are ‘above average’ – and 9 out of 10 Americans think they are above average drives! Second, because people lie! ‘Lying planners’ appear to want their projects funded and built so much that they base their estimates not on robust analysis but on plausible estimates. This can be a particularly acute problem when certain incentives are in place – despite codes of ethics calling for more ethical conduct.
Simply understanding that these decision-making weaknesses exist can be the first step for overcoming them. But there are also specific techniques that at least partially overcome each of them. For example, when Leapwise works with partners, we help them overcome over-optimism when planning programmes and projects, by encouraging ‘reference class forecasting’. Rather than fooling ourselves, with over-optimistic bottom up estimates of project costs and benefits, we ask ‘what did other projects like this deliver, how long did they take and how much did they end up costing?’
This is a version of an article produced for Police Professional.
You can download the full guide complete with all 7 key lessons for police leaders below.