Mitigating Evidentiary Bias in Planning and Policy-Making; Comment on “Reflective Practice: How the World Bank Explored Its Own Biases?”

Document Type : Commentary


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.


Main Subjects

McKee M, Stuckler D. Reflective practice: how the world bank explored its own biases? Int J Health Policy Manag. 2016;5(2):79-82. doi:10.15171/ijhpm.2015.216
World Bank. World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior. Washington DC: The World Bank; 2015.
Mannheim K. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils. New York: A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Brace and World;1936.
Easterly W. IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs and poverty. In: Dooley MP, Frankel JA, eds. Managing Currency Crises in Emerging Markets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2003:361-392.
Zagorin P. Francis Bacon's concept of objectivity and the idols of the mind. Br J Hist Sci. 2001;34(04):379-393. doi:10.1017/S0007087401004411
Ferguson J. The Anti-politics Machine: "Development," Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 1994.
US National Research Council. Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2012.
Gawande A, Lloyd JB. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York: Metropolitan Books; 2010.
Ely JW, Graber ML, Croskerry P. Checklists to reduce diagnostic errors. Acad Med. 2011;86(3):307-313.
Seshia SS, Makhinson M, Young GB. ‘Cognitive biases plus’: covert subverters of healthcare evidence. Evid Based Med. 2016;21(2):41-45. doi:10.1136/ebmed-2015-110302
Croskerry P. The importance of cognitive errors in diagnosis and strategies to minimize them. Acad Med. 2003;78(8):775-780.
Croskerry P, Singhal G, Mamede S. Cognitive debiasing 2: impediments to and strategies for change. BMJ Qual Saf. 2013. doi:10.1136/bmjqs-2012-001713
Parkhurst J. The Politics of Evidence: From Evidence Based Policy to the Good Governance of Evidence. London: Routledge; 2016 (in press).
Kahan DM. Ideology, motivated reasoning, and cognitive reflection. Judgm Decis Mak. 2013;8:407-424.
Taber CS, Lodge M. Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. Am J Polit Sci. 2006;50(3):755-769.
Carcasson M, Sprain L. Beyond problem solving: reconceptualizing the work of public deliberation as deliberative inquiry. Commun Theory. 2016;26(1):41-63. doi:10.1111/comt.12055
Willis P. From humble inquiry to humble intelligence: confronting wicked problems and augmenting public relations. Public Relat Rev. 2016;42(2):306-313. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.05.007
Sunstein CR. The law of group polarization. J Polit Philos. 2002;10(2):175-195.
Lambe KA, O'Reilly G, Kelly BD, Curristan S. Dual-process cognitive interventions to enhance diagnostic reasoning: a systematic review. BMJ Qual Saf. 2016. doi:10.1136/bmjqs-2015-004417
Ariely D. Predictably Irrational. New York: Harper Collins; 2008.