The virtues of cognitive biases

We have now reviewed cognitive biases that influence decision-making. Whilst we have focused generally on their negative influence on our judgement, they also have a potentially beneficial effect on decision-making. This positive dimension of cognitive biases is perhaps best portrayed by Gary Klein in his book, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Klein makes the strong argument that cognitive biases, in the form of gut instincts, are powerful cognitive tools which facilitate the decision-making process of professionals such as firefighters, intensive care workers, and military commanders. He provided several graphic examples to illustrate how these experts make critical decisions by relying on the first instinctive choice that comes to their minds.

International Firefighters Day. World’s Direction on Flickr.

Klein refers to the reliance on gut instincts to make judgments as naturalistic decision-making, and he describes how this enables experts to quickly size up the situation, and to rapidly respond with the best course of action. He emphasised that whilst this process is unconscious, it is not irrational because it is the outcome of subconscious analysis of the experts vast experience and knowledge. This point is also stressed in the book Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgement, where the authors portrayed heuristics as cognitive processes that rely on ‘highly sophisticated mental processes‘.

A Sailor treats a patient in an intensive care unit aboard USNS Mercy (T-AH 19), April 16, 2020. Official US Navy Page on Flickr.

Another strong advocate of the value of heuristics in decision-making is Gerd Gigerenzer. In a paper aptly titled Why heuristics work, Gigerenzer depicted heuristics as frugal tools which are effective because they facilitate decision-making by focussing on a limited amount of information, given that our cognitive capacities are too limited to deal with more than that. He also argued that they are the most effective decision-making tools when time and resources are limited. Heuristics, he said, look for ‘a good enough solution’ (they satisfice) because, in practice, the best solution (to optimize) is often elusive. He further argued that physicians frequently apply heuristics because they ‘correspond to their own intuitions‘.

Old guy thinking. jrossol on Flickr.

Heuristics and biases are therefore helpful shortcuts which work efficiently most of the time, but they can lead to error when they are deployed inappropriately and mindlessly to problems that require a more conscious approach. Rather than evils to completely avoid, they may be virtues which need to be monitored carefully to avoid making quick but inaccurate clinical judgments.

In the next blog post we will take a look at a phenomenon which is closely related to, but quite separate from, cognitive biases, and that is the concept of noise.


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