Why the government is making bad decisions after the riots

Following the riots, the government have made a decision which is likely to lead to more, rather than less rioting. These decisions are welcomed by a sizeable chunk of the British public, who are suddenly developing a bloodthirsty yearning for water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition–again, despite the fact that such tactics are likely to lead to more riots. They are also pursuing a vindictive policy to evict families of those charged and convicted with rioting from their social housing. How this measure is supposed to help is thoroughly unclear.

The collective lack of good judgment is hardly surprising: indeed, it is a natural consequence of decision making under stress. For once, this may not be entirely a consequence of the fact that we have a government who have nothing but contempt for anyone who is not rich and white.

It is important to acknowledge the context in which these decisions have been made: there is a climate of fear, stress and anger, and demands that Something Must Be Done Immediately. In this kind of context, good decisions are rarely made.

On an individual level, decision making is greatly affected by emotion. The ability to feel emotions is necessary for a person to make decisions: those who have been brain damaged and lose the ability to feel emotion suffer severe impairments in their ability to make decisions in their day-to-day life. High, negative emotions are problematic in making decisions, though.

In stressed decision making, the decision maker tends to focus their attention very narrowly and not examine all possible alternative analyses of the situation and courses of action. Instead, a hasty solution is proposed, one which may not be particularly fit for purpose in solving the problem. To make a good decision requires clear thinking on possible solutions to a problem and the consequences of such solutions. In their response to the riots, the government have not thought through possible consequences of their decision.

The type of emotion experienced also impacts decision making. In general, being in a good mood improves decision making and problem solving: thinking is more creative, flexible, thorough and efficient. The decisions made by the government were not made in a good mood: on top of stress, most of the senior members of government had to come back from their holidays, which is likely to add a further dampener on their moods.

The type of negative mood has also been shown to affect decision making differentially. In a state of anxiety, decision makers are biased towards making “safe” decisions: ones which are low-risk and low-reward. In contrast, when sad, a high-risk, high-reward option is more likely to be chosen. The findings of this study may not be particularly pertinent to the situation at hand, though, as it used a “gambling” methodology where participants were aware of the risks and rewards available from each course of action. In a more nuanced setting such as responses to the riots, such information was unlikely to be available, and, more importantly, unlikely to be fully surveyed by the decision makers.

When a group makes a decision under stress, they are no more likely to make a good decision than an individual. In fact, group processes may make the decision even worse. This is due to a phenomenon called groupthink, which I touched upon in my discussion of consensus decision making.

The word “groupthink” is loaded, melodramatic, reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia, but this does not mean it does not happen. Through analysis of historical decision-making, and observations of group decision-making, a well-documented effect emerges: cohesive groups, particularly those under pressure, often make poor decisions. Crucially, this tends to happen when the group is attempting to reach a consensus.

The theory behind groupthink proposes eight “symptoms”:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.
Groupthink is facilitated by stressful conditions. The phenomenon of groupthink impairs decision making in a number of ways:
  1. Incomplete survey of alternatives
  2. Incomplete survey of objectives
  3. Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
  4. Failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives
  5. Poor information search
  6. Selection bias in collecting information
  7. Failure to work out contingency plans.

When surveying alternative courses of action is already impaired, decision making as a group can further narrow available options, leading to convergence on a solution which is inadequate at the very best. This appears to be what happened following the COBRA meetings to plan responses to riots.

The type of leader is an important factor in times of stress, and it is an area where followers themselves make poor decisions. This is because in times of crisis, people are drawn to a charismatic leader over any other type of leader. In one lab study, it was found that people primed with thoughts of death were most likely to vote for an imagined charismatic political candidate than one who was task-oriented, or one who focused on compassion and appreciation of followers. Preference for charisma has also been identified in real-world observational studies, such as in the aftermath of 9/11.

David Cameron is somewhat of a style-over-substance leader, and a crisis like this can be beneficial to him in this respect, as he is nothing if not charismatic. Indeed, his approval rating in the last week has improved (although it is still currently negative), and 45% of surveyed people believe he responded well by coming back from holiday and making some thoroughly dangerous decisions. Right now, if Cameron continues to act charismatically, giving perfectly-written speeches and flashing his Oxford grin, consequences for him will not be negative. It could possibly act to improve his standing in a climate of fear and stress.

I wrote this post assuming the best of our current government. A large part of me believes that much of their response is deliberate, an escalation in their war against the poor. The decisions will have long-term implications for public order situations such as demonstrations, they will make people homeless and clog up our prison and justice system with people who need to see a future rather than a barred window.

However, decision making in a crisis is always going to be problematic. We need to be aware of its shortcomings and avoid swift reactions without thinking through implications and consequences. This is a lesson that we must all learn so we can respond better in emergencies and to sudden, horrifying scenarios.

The government reaction frightens me. I cannot see a way that things will get better.

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6 responses to “Why the government is making bad decisions after the riots

  • Matt Moran (@sciamachy)

    So, nothing new really – the Government made a string of bad decisions before the riots, and is continuing in the great Tory tradition of making bad decisions afterwards. They were always about harsher prison sentences & more prison for more offences back pre ’97, & they obviously haven’t changed. Even their scapegoats are the same – single mums, benefit claimants & immigrants. I’d only really be surprised about any of this if it genuinely surprised anyone.

  • @gregalomaniac

    What worries me the most is that Cameron and May seem to have no appreciation for the separation of powers. Arrogantly ordering the police and courts around like some autocratic military junta.

    • stavvers

      The worst thing about this, is that it’s going to be very hard to undo these changes. In haste, they’ve made a somewhat permanent decision wherein all the lines are blurred. With May’s track record, though, it was probably completely deliberate.

      • @gregalomaniac

        Absolutely. It’s events like this that allow Tories to reach into the bottom drawer (marked ‘Contoversial’) and pull out the draft legislation that would otherwise never see the light of day. And much as we all hate the idea, this is the kind of area where the govt’s epetition scheme could be a willing accomplice. They’ve committed to accepting it as ‘the voice of the people’ so I think we should make use of it in situations just like this: http://t.co/gwY2dki

  • The Tories try to absolve responsibility with magical in-utero interventions « Another angry woman

    [...] riots the Tories have been falling over themselves to look like they’re Doing Something (usually terrible ideas). Another dreadful idea has emerged from the Cabinet Office, this one inexplicably originating from [...]

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