Why “Sweet Spots” Are Neglected in Political Debates

Over at The Incidental Economist, I have a post on “sweet spots” in public policy. When you understand sweet spots, you will know that many absolute policy positions many people adopt (e.g., More spending on schools will help children learn more, cutting healthcare spending doesn’t harm health, more cops reduce crime, increased incarceration doesn’t reduce crime etc.) are all, for lack of a better word, wrong. The same policy can be effective, ineffective or counter-productive depending on whether the current intensity at which it is applied is already in the “sweet spot” or not.

If you want to review examples of this phenomenon from education, crime, health and labor policy, please see the TIE piece. What I am writing about here is why the sweet spot reality is so underappreciated when people argue sincerely about public policy (I emphasize sincerely because of course some people know about sweet spots and ignore them anyway to further their own agenda, but here I am talking about people who truly believe what they are saying).

Our cognitive system has frailties. Kahnemann and Tversky showed how vivid, easily-recalled examples seem more representative than they are. Someone may “know” that more education spending always helps kids because they had a highly memorable experience of seeing a crumbling, underfunded school being turned around by additional investment. In contrast, a different person may be aware of a vivid example of where massive spending (e.g., Mark Zuckerburg’s $100 million dollar gift to Newark’s school system) didn’t help kids learn at all. By definition, single examples are going to be sampled from a range of possibilities that may or may not be in the sweet spot for a given policy, and because we are prone to misjudge such easily recalled instances as representative, we are often insensitive to counter examples that fall outside the range whence our example comes.

Slovic and colleagues have identified another important bias known as affective simplicity. Human beings tend to put things in global emotional categories of “good” or “bad”. The more complex, mixed emotion resulting from grasping the reality that the same thing can be good or bad depending on context doesn’t appeal as much. Most of us are thus far more emotionally prone to take in a message like “Cops are no good at their jobs and hiring more never helps” than “Hiring more cops is a good idea sometimes but a bad idea at others”.

Importantly, the limitations of the human mind are accentuated when it comes to emotionally charged issues, and policy debates are often emotionally charged. People understandably have strong feelings about whether we are educating our children adequately, what might reduce our risk of being criminally victimized, who deserves to be in prison and what we should get paid for our labor. A significant body of psychological research has demonstrated that when emotionally aroused — for example when they feel threatened — human beings tend to both take more extreme positions and defend them more vigorously. This is not conducive to appreciating that there are sweet spots where what one passionately believes are true and others points on the curve in which what one passionately believes is false.

Tribalism also blinds us to sweet spots. Jim Messina, a key advisor to President Obama, was pilloried by many U.S. Democrats for working for Tory UK politician David Cameron after the election. To Messina’s critics it seemed that there is a linear left to right political dimension and that Messina had switched sides. This ignored the reality that the range of political debate is not consistent across countries. David Cameron was to the political left of President Obama in many respects, because British politics is well to the left of US politics. There is therefore nothing illogical about someone like Messina believing that there is a public policy sweet spot that is to the right of UK Labour Party and to left of the US Republican Party — there’s a lot of space in there, objectively speaking. But seen tribally and emotionally, Messina was engaging in self-contradictory, traitorous behavior. More generally, tribalism makes it hard for people to appreciate that rather than “their side” being correct all the time and the “enemy” being wrong all the time, there are times when both sides are correct in many policy debates depending on whether we are currently in a policy sweet spot or not.

All of the above factors make honest people overlook the reality of sweet spots in public policies (Again, of course some people ignore this reality dishonestly). To the extent we can overcome these limitations, the more likely we are to make wise policy investments that generate the outcomes we want for society.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “Why “Sweet Spots” Are Neglected in Political Debates”

  1. Keith is still it seems living is a world in which public policy is a choice between second- and third-best options, and even policymakers who act merely out of political calculation or animus make the pretence of cloaking their views in an appeal to reason. That is true in most of the democratic world. But it's no longer so of a country in which a talentless celebrity like Kim Kardashian with no qualifications or experience in public life has become a more trustworthy guide to the facts than the President of the United States.

    1. I am working with many smart, public spirited US policy makers right now — Donald Trump is not the only politician in the country, there are excellent mayors, city council members, county commissioners, state legislators and governors from coast to coast.

      1. Point taken on the state and municipal level, though they will come under pressure from a metastatic Washington. It is also possible that there may be "roadmending" policy areas of no interest to the Trumpists where for a while rationality has a chance more generally. Do these include drugs policy?

    2. Thomas Frank, having sucked the marrow out of Kansas, has now shifted his attention to Missouri. This is from his Jan 27 piece in the Guardian: "..What did crop up persistently when I talked to this group was a disgust with the perceived moral haughtiness of liberals. More than one member of the club referred to himself as one of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”, for example. There was resentment of “Ivy League graduates” who felt entitled to “micromanage the rest of the country”. The man who told me that – a fellow wearing a US Army Retired cap – also told me that “if you want to be an obnoxious slob, you have a right to be one”.

      This right-to-obnoxiousness raises a fascinating point: these men saw liberals as loudmouthed Pharisees, intolerant moralists who demanded that the rest of the nation snap into line – an exact reverse of the John Ashcroft stereotype liberals used to hold of conservatives…"

      So if you are thinking about sweet spots, it's worth thinking about where you least alienate the voters who are not necessarily with you. I am going to suggest that sweet spots are well away from making the Little Sisters of the Poor provide contraception and from making one among many bakeries provide gay wedding cakes. There were ways to make sure women who wanted contraception could get it and that gays could get cakes which didn't involve making these guys angry enough to vote for the Orange One.

  2. It's not so much about "sweet spots", it's about comparing marginal benefits and marginal costs for a policy. Of course, determining benefits and costs can be difficult and contentious because both are (at least somewhat) subjective. And benefits and costs of a given policy vary depending on the size/intensity of a program (i.e. where you are on the "curve"). And comparing marginal benefits and marginal costs facilitates comparisons across polices, not just finding a "sweet spot" for a given policy.

    I suspect you know all that, and your fundamental point is exactly right –oversimplifying complex issues into slogans or talking points is a bad guide to public policy.

    1. Costs and benefits are more than "somewhat" subjective. I worked in environmental policy for a number of years, down in the trenches of consulting to EPA on costs and benefits of various proposed regulations, and I will just say that a cost-benefit analysis not coming out in a way that justified what the higher-ups wanted to do was… exceedingly rare. Most assumptions that go into such exercises are highly, highly malleable.

    2. RY959: I am a bit puzzled by your comment, which is sort of a "it's not about Alaska, it's about the huge state up north that borders Canada". You are describing the same point in different words, which is of course fine, but I would expect this to be preceded by words of agreement rather than "It's not so much about…". I think what you mean is that people have described these issues in different ways and that is correct — I mention another way in the TIE post and link to that paper (healthcare production function/frontier).

  3. While I agree with the larger point, I would have to quibble on education, in that it is more nuanced. What matters most is *how* you spend the money. I can can think of plenty of ways in which money is wasted on programs of marginal value, while other – likely costly, yet effective – interventions aren't being implemented due to lack of resources.

    1. I think what you say about education is true for most policy areas, isn't it? Opportunities for wasting money are plentiful.

      1. Yes, this is true in all policy areas, implementation matters, that in no way contradicts the basic point. Indeed, there are sweet spots in implementation: If a system is adopting 90% of recommended practices, more spending on implementation of good policies may be a waste of time.

  4. While I agree with much of the post, it deftly ignores the issue of spin. You'll recall 8 or 10 years back when everyone was clamoring for "tort reform", because an old lady made 8 million dollars off McDonald's for scalding herself. At least, that was the way the Right successfully spun it, when in fact it was an effort to let corporations off the hook for pollution, workplace hazards, and faulty merchandise, while the lady never asked for nor saw anywhere near that amount. Food stamps are only for black people. Illegal aliens are bankrupting Social Security. Teachers only work six hour days and get the whole summer off. Evolution is only a theory. It's cow farts that are warming the planet, if indeed it's warming. Obama is a secret Muslim coming to steal your guns. The Founding Fathers were only referring to Christianity. Private industry is always more efficient than government. Socialism has never worked, just look at Stalin. I could go on and on, of course.

    In terms of voting patterns, it seems that black-and-white certainties, or a good punchline well-delivered, almost always prevail over nuance and substance. It seems to me that our most important cognitive frailty is our cultural willingness to look to a horse's backside for inspiration and eagerly devour what comes out of it.

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