The term 'psychological trap' is relatively new to me. The term bears resemblance to the notion of 'psychic prisons' which I recently studied in Structure & Theory of Organizations. While the two ideas are not synonymous, they do share an overarching characteristic. Both are derived from personal frames of reference, our corporate cultures, occupational ritualism, and interaction with others. Further, depending upon the mindsets of individual employees and the evolution of their corporate culture, the shared reality of an organization may be more or less susceptible to the detriments of psychological traps. One such occupational culture is municipal management.
I believe that psychological traps gain strength in local government with frequency, which can be attributed to the unique characteristics of the workplace. Take into consideration that municipal management has no focus on making profit, and must also administer services and programs in a utilitarian manner to satisfy its constituents. Local government becomes a mosquito pool for these traps; a place where thinking stagnates, creativity is seldom required, and internal & external dynamics are so inert that innovation need not be a trademark quality. The cyclical nature of many municipal functions also lends itself to encouraging traps.
Take police contract negotiations, for example. Whether talks deteriorate into arbitration or not, negotiations always begin with either management or police laying out a proposed contract. This proposed contract, with well-formulated facts and figures, is where the art of compromise begins. Both sides are victims of anchoring, for when negotiations open, the previous contract is both factions' point of reference. Budgeting is probably the cyclical aspect of government that comes to most people's minds.
Local governments are also burdened by being one of the few organizations that must maintain a balanced budget. Towns often find themselves in trouble when a once-reliable revenue source suddenly dries up, as Upper Merion did when its mercantile tax revenue plummeted post-September 11. Mercantile tax is levied from all retailers, and having the King of Prussia Mall within township lines bolsters this revenue source. However, relying too heavily upon the trends of past years caused the Township to be too overconfident in their revenue forecast, thus creating a shortfall when compared to expenditures.
This case, of course, was rather unpredictable, but overconfidence traps can manifest in more than just budget forecasting. Mediating the wants of the public can also leave a municipality prone to certain psychological traps. The desires of the public can be boiled down to two vast generalizations: people who wish to see an ever-expanding list of programs and services, and people who wish to see a modicum of services maintained while keeping tax rates as low as possible. Often these two generalizations can be associated with two types of resident: lifelong residents and new or younger residents. In order to keep both contrasting constituencies relatively happy, a watered down brand of decision-making becomes en vogue, where nobody's has their proverbial toes stepped on. The dichotomy between lifers and new residents is also seen in the composition of supervisory boards and personnel.
When elected officials or high-ranking personnel stay at a post for decades, they accumulate large amounts of knowledge. This knowledge can often manifest in an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' or 'it's always worked fine this way' mentality. They often see new trends in the field as 'flavors of the week,' and while that may be the correct assumption with many of these trends, I have personally known school board members and councilmen who have this feeling toward computers and the internet. Certainly, mindsets like these are a breeding ground for status-quo traps. Further, community lifers can remember unique calamities such as floods and depressions. Although the likelihood of such disasters recurring is low, the seeds of recall ability traps have been sewn, and little can be done to change their minds.
Though I have seemingly just indicted my own occupation, I would like to state that I do not believe psychological traps to be an outright detriment to decision-making. Despite the decision-making power executives and leaders often wield, many are ill equipped to render such decisions without the benefit of some of these traps. In a day and age where 'free-thinkers are dangerous,' the traps of prudence, recall ability, status quo and sunk-cost can be reliable crutches for many leaders in both the public and private sectors to rely upon, in some cases.