London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK
The field of cognitive psychology has increasingly provided scientific insights to explore how humans are subject to unconscious sources of evidentiary bias, leading to errors that can affect judgement and decision-making. Increasingly these insights are being applied outside the realm of individual decision-making to the collective arena of policy-making as well. A recent editorial in this journal has particularly lauded the work of the World Bank for undertaking an open and critical reflection on sources of unconscious bias in its own expert staff that could undermine achievement of its key goals. The World Bank case indeed serves as a remarkable case of a global policy-making agency making its own critical reflections transparent for all to see. Yet the recognition that humans are prone to cognitive errors has been known for centuries, and the scientific exploration of such biases provided by cognitive psychology is now well-established. What still remains to be developed, however, is a widespread body of work that can inform efforts to institutionalise strategies to mitigate the multiple sources and forms of evidentiary bias arising within administrative and policy-making environments. Addressing this gap will require a programme of conceptual and empirical work that supports robust development and evaluation of institutional bias mitigation strategies. The cognitive sciences provides a scientific basis on which to proceed, but a critical priority will now be the application of that science to improve policy-making within those agencies taking responsibility for social welfare and development programmes.
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