Most professionals, from doctors to policy makers, are subject to biases that can prevent them from helping the people they are actually seeking to assist. Previous beliefs or personal culture can prevent them from objectively analyzing the information they have in front of them. This can be particularly serious in professions where data analysis plays a major role, like development professionals. Fortunately, the World Bank - an institution full of such people - decided that instead of pretending such issues were not present, they would release a report where they collected data examining how their staff behaved, testing if the biases were actually there.
Decisions can be very complex. Suppose you have a problem at hand, which is particularly messy. How do you compare alternatives in such situations? And what if alternatives are almost infinite? Even in simpler cases, going from two to three alternatives has been suggested to "irrationally" change professionals actions: doctors were outlined a situation where a patient had two alternatives: 1) Ibuprofen + Referral (to specialist); or 2) Just referral. In such a case 53% of doctors chose option 2. Another set of doctors was given a third alternative: 3) Piroxicam + Referral. Paradoxically, now many more doctors (72%) chose the previously available option of just Referral. Complexity modifies their behavior, leading them more to the simpler solution of just referral. Since the only difference between the two cases was that a new (possibly "irrelevant") alternative was added, we should expect less doctors choosing any of the previously available ones. But this did not happen. And this are highly educated and experienced professionals!
Framing (basically how something is described) is also unbelievably important: people seem to have much negative views of a policy that says 1/3 of people will die versus one that says 2/3 of them will survive. Obviously, the two are exactly the same. Moreover, when framed in terms of gains, people prefer certainty ("1/3 of people survive"). However, when framed in terms of losses ("2/3 of people die"), people are more willing to take a gamble and try to save more people (1/3 chance no one dies and 2/3 chance everyone dies"). Does this happen at the World Bank as well? Certainly.
Confirmation Bias means that people gather or value information selectively in order to support their previous beliefs. We all have cultural and ideological priors, which leaves us susceptible to analyze or interpret information with motivated reasoning, so as to arrive to the conclusions we like. A very nice experiment was held where professionals were given the same data to analyze. To some people they told it referred to the effectiveness of a skin cream (something for which we don't have priors or political beliefs) and others were told it was about the impact of the minimum wage laws on poverty. Figure 1 shows that World Bank professionals were more likely to identify the answer supported by the data (i.e. the "correct" one), when talking about skin cream. (I am also shocked by how low the percentage of right answers is when talking about skin cream, but I guess that's another issue...). When dealing with the minimum wage they were more likely to get the right answer when this matched their cultural views. And differences in seniority or cognitive ability did not improve the interpretation of the data. This was also done with people outside the World Bank and they actually found that skill helps only when the right answer matches your ideology...
Figure 1: Subjective interpretation of data.
We could take all this information in a negative way: some of the best people in charge of world development are not doing a good job. However, I believe that's not correct. This bias is present in all of us. And the positive thing is that the people at the World Bank now seem to be willing to recognize it and hopefully move forward to try to make progress. Identifying the problem is the first step, or as John Dewey said a problem well put is half solved.
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