Policy Thinking, Fast and Slow: A Social Intuitionist Perspective on Public Policy Processes

38 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2013

Date Written: 2013


This paper describes the central relevance to public policy processes of social intuitionism, a well-developed theoretical and empirical approach in psychology and cognitive science. This body of research suggests that in human decisionmaking and moral judgment, the use of reason and rationality are subordinated to rapid, gut-level, emotion-laden cognition, and that people rely heavily on heuristics and narratives that often carry certain inherent biases. Such tendencies, I suggest, extend from individual-level citizen and elite belief formation about policy issues, to influence agenda setting, alternative selection, and the use and abuse of expert policy analysis. The findings of social intuitionism, furthermore, are quite congruent with some important aspects of well-known theories of the U.S. policy process, including Kingdon’s multiple streams, the advocacy coalition framework, punctuated equilibrium, the social construction of target populations, Wilson’s typology on the distribution of costs and benefits, and Stone’s emphasis on causal stories. To illustrate social intuitionism’s potential uses, I provide a brief sketch of how its insights help illuminate the current policy debate over immigration policy reform.

Keywords: social intuitionism, moral foundations theory, heuristics, public policy, policymaking

Suggested Citation

Lewis, Paul G., Policy Thinking, Fast and Slow: A Social Intuitionist Perspective on Public Policy Processes (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2300479

Paul G. Lewis (Contact Author)

Arizona State University ( email )

PO Box 873902
Tempe, AZ 85287-3902
United States

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