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  • 2nd May 2024

Decisionscape: how thinking like an artist can improve our decision-making

Top of our reading list this month has been Decisionscape, a book by former BIT employee, Elspeth Kirkman, now Nesta’s Chief Programmes Officer.

Decisionscape brings together the realms of art and science to explore what drives our decision-making and how we can use these forces for good. In the book Elspeth draws on projects she worked on during her time at BIT, so with that in mind we’ve asked her to write a guest blog recapping some of those highlights. Over to you Elspeth:

I’ll begin with the obvious question: what on earth is a “decisionscape”? Put simply, it is a mental representation of the factors that influence our decisions and, throughout the book, I compare it to an artist’s canvas. The central idea is that visualising our decisions in this way can help us see and appraise the choices we are making more effectively. And, just as there is no “right” way to make art, there is no “right” way to make decisions: each of us is working on our own individual canvas making our own individual choices.

To explore this metaphor, the book is structured around four deliberate practices used by artists – diminution, viewpoint, composition, and framing. By applying these concepts to the decisionscape, I describe the invisible forces that warp our perspectives and compromise our decisions – and also the things we can do to mitigate them. 

Many of the insights in Decisionscape came through my time at BIT so let’s take a closer look with particular behavioural science projects in mind: 

1) Distance and diminution: Get the perspective right

When an artist wants to create the illusion of depth, one of the key skills they need to master is relative sizing, or diminution, so that distant objects are rendered smaller than those in the foreground. 

This is a fairly straightforward exercise since there are simple geometric rules that you can follow to figure out how to imply “distance” on the canvas. But when it comes to psychological distance, there is no governing rule we can cleave to figure out how much we should minimise the things that feel “distant” in our decision-making. 

As a result, we often make mistakes: things that happen far in the future or to people we don’t know, for example, are too easy to reduce to tiny dots on the horizon line of our psychological decisionscape. The inverse is also true and too often our mental canvas gets dominated by things that are urgent, immediate, or emotionally evocative.

One of the first projects I worked on at BIT attempted to address the issue of jobseekers failing to prioritise the most productive activities in their search for work. Specifically, just 10% of jobseekers who were sent an SMS invite to a recruitment event attended despite the fact these events come with a very high chance of gaining employment. It wasn’t like they didn’t want to find work. These same jobseekers were often putting great effort into lower-value tasks that they had agreed directly with their job coach, someone with whom they formed a relatively close social connection over time. We wondered: could we leverage this social connection to make the recruitment events seem more appealing, bringing them into the foreground of the decisionscape?

To this end, we redesigned the text messages inviting jobseekers to these recruitment events. The standard message was impersonal, conveying only the facts. It made it easy to dismiss as background information. We redesigned the message to narrow the social distance between the sender and the recipient. This involved personalising the messages, by adding the jobseeker’s name and signing them off with their coach’s name, and inducing a sense of reciprocity by adding the line “I’ve booked you a place, good luck!” from the work coach. The result: jobseekers’ attendance at recruitment events more than doubled to 26.8%.

2) Think about viewpoint

When it comes to constructing a piece of art, an artist thinks very carefully about where the work should be viewed from before they start painting. 

But when we confront problems or decisions, we tend to underestimate how much of our perception is down to who we are and where we’re standing, rather than the objective facts of the situation.

One of the projects I feel most privileged to have worked on during my time at BIT involved conducting foundational research in Nyarugusu, Tanzania – the world’s third-largest refugee camp – on how to change the prevailing attitude that violence is an appropriate tool for classroom discipline. We had a hypothesis that changing teachers’ viewpoints by getting them to put themselves in the shoes of their students would be more effective than reminding them of the standard camp rules against using corporal punishment. This was borne out in the research: when teachers were given the standard information about why they shouldn’t use corporal punishment, they said they would use physical force as a solution in 35% of the classroom scenarios we presented. But when we asked them to remember how they felt when they were a child and to put themself in their pupil’s shoes, the tolerance for violence dropped to 26%. 

3) Composition: relating the details to the big picture

When an artist creates they think about composition – the relationship between the details of their work and the overall impression it leaves. Some schools of art deliberately juxtapose the two. The Impressionists, for example, created work where the detail looks blurry but the whole creates a coherent image. 

In decision making we often find ourselves toggling between the details and the big picture. But, once again, we often fail to get the balance right. In business, for example, there is a phenomenon known as “bike shedding” where executive teams spend too much time on a relatively trivial detail, like the state of the bike sheds, and not enough time on bigger issues like client satisfaction or profitability.

On only my second day as a BIT employee, I hopped on a train to join a team working in Essex,  testing changes to the process jobseekers went through at the Jobcentre. Over the years, as new rules had come in, small parts of the existing process had been tweaked to boost compliance or solve some minor problem. Each tweak made sense in isolation but together they had created a Frankensteinian mess. Using behavioural science, we worked backwards from the outcome everyone wanted (“the big picture”) to redesign the whole process end to end – an intervention which ultimately led to around 1,800 people getting back into work faster than they would have otherwise.

4) The frame: what have we cut out of the decisionscape?

Artists are often making deliberate choices about what they do and don’t show in their work. In this way, they impose a “frame” on our experience. This happens in everyday life too. 

We don’t notice that our choices are implicitly bounded by everything from social conventions to economic systems. If we could notice the edges of the frame and challenge them, we might question the rules that constrain us and design a better world as a result.

A small example of questioning and expanding the “frame” from my time at BIT was the creation of the blinded-hiring platform, Applied. We were often asked for help diversifying applicant pools and making recruitment fairer. Despite doing good work in this area, we were always bound by the limits of existing recruitment processes. For example, you can use behavioural interventions to get more people to apply for a job but if someone is still bringing unhelpful bias into a decision on whether or not they get invited to interview that wider applicant pool may not lead to changes in who gets hired.

But a small team of colleagues at BIT began pursuing a different question: “What if we completely redesigned hiring to make it fairer and more appealing?” Starting lo-fi we used Sharpies to remove personal or identifying information from CVs in a live recruitment, and from there things escalated. 

The result was a software platform that simply removed many of the traditional parts of the hiring process that were causing problems and replaced them with evidence-informed approaches to hiring that largely eliminated the risk of being swayed by unhelpful biases. In our own experiments, we found that CV screening would have eliminated 60% of the candidates we went on to hire when using Applied. Since then Applied has been used by millions of job candidates around the world.

I wouldn’t have had the inspiration, the material, or the platform to write this book had it not been for my years at BIT. I am excited to keep learning and to think more about how the idea of the Decisionscape can continue to help us in our work at BIT and Nesta. 

Decisionscape: How Thinking Like an Artist Can Improve Our Decision-Making is available to buy online at, Waterstones and Amazon.