Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mistakes were made: understanding cognitive errors

Cognitive errors in decision-makingYesterday's Boston Globe carried a story captioned "The mistakes doctors make: Errors in thinking too often lead to wrong diagnoses". It described three cognitive errors that doctors make: attribution error, anchoring error, and confirmation bias.

Of course these errors are not only made by physicians but by just about anyone (yes, even mediators) who is attempting to diagnose and treat almost any kind of problem--especially the interpersonal kind.

Attribution errors occur when we attribute behavior or some other quality to a person's character or disposition rather than to situation or environment--in other words, stereotyping. Our assumptions can blind us to the real causes or triggers of behavior.

Anchoring errors occur when we make our final diagnosis based on the direction our original diagnosis steered us in, closing our minds to other possibilities--which means our final diagnosis may be wildly inaccurate.

Confirmation bias, well known to mediators, is the very human tendency to seek out data that supports our assumptions and discount data that contradicts them. (For those of you who teach, a classroom exercise in confirmation bias can be found at the DevPsy.org web site).

Anyone can make mistakes--the hard part is not only owning up to our errors but making ourselves aware of how they occur in the first place.