How psychology can help shape policies (3/3): Measuring influence

This is the third post in the series on how psychology can help shape policies. The first post focused on modelling human behaviour and the second on influencing behaviour.

An inalienable component of good policy-making is analysing the impacts the policies have. Psychology can also help at this stage, especially since, in addition to overt behaviour, it is necessary to understand the impact of the policy on covert psychological phenomena, such as attitudes, stereotypes, or thought patterns.

Given that reliable measurement is a cornerstone of any scientific discipline, psychologists have generated a rich set of assessment tools over the years to measure covert psychological phenomena. In the lab, various technological aids can be used, such as the analysis of how the eyes move, as well as various biological signals reflecting processes in the brain and the body. In the context of policy making, however, perhaps the most valuable tools that psychology can offer are reliable questionnaires for assessing covert psychological phenomena.

As early as around 1980 the University of Tartu psychology lab was equipped with a computer. Today’s equipment allows measurement of various brain and body signals. Standing from left to right: Aavo Luuk, Urmas Mast, Väino Vaske. Sitting: Jüri Allik and Julia Berger (later Blum). Photo from the university archive

Why should policy-makers care about covert psychological phenomena? Occasionally, a covert phenomenon, such as a gender stereotype, may be a key predictor of some overt behavioural goal, such as bridging the pay gap. For instance, in order to increase the share of women in highly paid positions, a policy-maker may decide to target gender stereotypes such as the ungrounded belief that women’s personality traits are unsuitable for top executive positions1 ELLEMERS, N. (2018). Gender Stereotypes. – Annual Review of Psychology, 69, 275–298. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011719. . When assessing  the effectiveness of such a policy, the policy-maker could complement wage statistics with direct measures of stereotypes (see, e.g.2 ALLIK, J., MÕTTUS, R., REALO, A. (2010). Does National Character Reflect Mean Personality Traits When Both are Measured by the Same Instrument? – Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 62–69. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2009.10.008. ).

At other times, covert psychological phenomena may be the ultimate aims of policies in and of themselves. For instance, it is becoming increasingly clear that the growth of economic value, measured as the gross domestic product, is not a sufficient criterion for making various decisions. Alongside GDP, it is important to measure public well-being, which has both objective components (e.g., access to health services) and essentially subjective components (e.g., individual health satisfaction). Identifying and measuring the various components of subjective well-being has a long history in psychology3 KÖÖTS‐AUSMEES, L., REALO, A. (2015). The Association between Life Satisfaction and Self-Reported Health Status in Europe. – European Journal of Personality, 29, 647–657. DOI: 10.1002/per.2037. .

The advice of psychologists and other behavioural scientists is also worth seeking in situations in which a studied phenomenon is not necessarily psychological but questionnaires are used as the main research method, as in, for example, regular state-commissioned monitoring surveys.

Among other things, psychologists are experts at making questionnaires. They know that the answers depend on how the questions have been formulated. Image credit: Inga Külmoja

Psychologists have also studied how the obtained answers depend on how the questions have been formulated. For instance, asking respondents directly whether they think that men are more capable than women is unlikely to reveal true levels of gender stereotypes. Instead, respondents can be presented with more indirect questions, such as: ‘Do men and women have different abilities?’

Psychologists possess various methods to manage these risks, among other things, by controlling the length of questionnaires4 KONSTABEL, K., LÖNNQVIST, J-E., LEIKAS, S., VELÁZQUEZ, R. G., QIN, H., VERKASALO, M., WALKOWITZ, G. (2017). Measuring Single Constructs by Single Items: Constructing an Even Shorter Version of the “Short Five” Personality Inventory. – PLOS ONE, 12, e0182714. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0182714. . Estonia already has several good examples of how such measures have been applied in monitoring surveys5 KAARE, P-R., MÕTTUS, R., KONSTABEL, K. (2009). Pathological Gambling in Estonia: Relationships with Personality, Self-Esteem, Emotional States and Cognitive Ability. – Journal of Gambling Studies, 25, 377–390. DOI: 10.1007/s10899-009-9119-y. , and this is encouraging for future attempts.

Andero Uusberg is a Senior Research Fellow in Affective Psychology at the University of Tartu. Kariina Laas is the Head of the University of Tartu Institute of Psychology.

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