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Taking the bias out of decisions

June 27, 2018

This blog piece is a highly edited version of “Debiasing political decision-making through “Value-Free” scenario models”, a paper presented by SAMI Fellow Jonathan Blanchard Smith at the European Union’s 6th International Conference on Future-Oriented Technology Analysis (FTA) – Future in the Making, held in Brussels, 4-5 June 2018.


Our recent work on Brexit, and in particular the creation and use of the SAMI futures model in client work and presentations, has thrown up an unexpected outcome. Client feedback has shown that one of the benefits of using the model is in being able to consider a politically contentious matter such as Brexit in what we are calling a ‘value-free’ state: in other words, that the model enables people to think about a complex, highly emotionally charged problem rationally.

Alongside our existing work on decision bias, and how it complicates making “robust decisions in uncertain times”, we have been developing this thinking, and recently presented it at the main European foresight conference to gain feedback and further advance our thinking. This remains very much a work in progress, but it is one which seems to have real benefits.

Brexit as an example of contested thinking

It is a feature of Brexit that people find it very difficult to engage with without having a preference for one or other side of the argument. We have seen in for instance the largely unsupported claims of the Leave side (Aaron Banks’ recent statement to the House of Commons Culture Media and Sports Committee: “Banks and Wigmore happily admitted lying to journalists during the EU referendum to gain publicity for their cause” (The Guardian, 12 June 2018)) or the much derided “Project Fear” from the Remain side that both sides exaggerated and exaggerate their positions for effect.

The binary nature of the choice inevitably intensifies the split between the two sides. The marginal nature of the referendum result gave neither side an argument that the electorate was with them.


The rise in populism raises a number of issues including:

  • Youth vs age. Whilst the people behind populist movements are of all ages, those who vote for them are predominantly older.
  • Distrust of experts. The reaction against expertise complicates decision making by introducing what is essentially an unanswerable opposition (“I don’t believe you”) to fact. There is no easy resolution of this issue.
  • Emotional investment. The oppositionalist, binary nature of many of the issues results in people gaining entrenched positions where it is emotionally easier to pick a side and defend it than it is to see that the other side has valid opinions or, even more difficult, may in fact be right.

The combination of these two last points has been compounded in what is generally known as the “backfire effect”.

The Backfire effect

Essentially, the backfire effect holds that “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

The issue: and its solution

The essential problem our clients found was that their thinking was clouded not only by the normal issues which affect one’s thinking about the future – lack of precise information, compromised or conflicting reasons for doing the work, unconscious or conscious desire for a particular outcome and so on – but by the fact that they were too embedded in a view about the decision that formed the start point of the scenarios in the first place. This emotional investment in one side or other prevented them from thinking clearly about the future.

By developing a futures model which does not include the problem but includes the consequences of the problem, in such a context that it is the potential future outcomes that matter, the model seems to allow a freedom of thought which is genuinely productive.

We have described the model in detail in past blog posts. Our paper described the results we gained from the model.

Feedback from clients has been overwhelmingly positive. They appreciated

  • “the space to think about this without worrying about Brexit”
  • “the clear air it gives us to think about the future”
  • “the fact that I can think about the opportunities not just how bad it’s going to be”

This implies that the ability to communicate is by itself improved by the removal of potential biases, by providing a “safe space” for clients to think about complex and divisive issues without actually having to explicitly engage with the issue itself.

We draw a number of other conclusions, specifically designed for scenario creators, around the requirement for conscious debiasing at the outset, the need for independent checking and a real sense of integrity throughout the model development process.

The backfire effect is only one of many potential biases that can influence both scenario set creation and use. However, it is also one of the most evident. Whilst scenarios are generally understood as providing a space within which one can think about the future and its implications, the underlying assumptions and methodologies are poorly recognised in the client base, and there is a question about how far one can engage clients with the engineering as opposed to the result.


Conscious debiasing at the outset of the scenario construction process is a multi-step process, and is dependent not only on the quality of the scenario set but upon the determination of the development team.

We believe that this model provides a potential route to thinking about the implications of contentious political topics in a way that provides clarity for clients, whether they be in politics directly or in the impact of those politics through their involvement in business or the third sector. Communication, comprehension, and results all seem to be improved through this model.

Copies of the paper are available directly from the author at

Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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