What elements contribute to successful decision-making? When discussing the downside of heuristics recently, I referred to Dr. Pat Croskerry and his 2005 paper on "The Theory and Practice of Clinical Decision Making." Although Croskerry's research focuses on decision-making by physicians, his conclusions have implications for everyone. From his paper's final passage, titled Towards a universal theory of decision-making:
The successful decision-maker will be one who has an ergonomically optimized workplace, is well rested and well slept, is not driven by throughput pressures, is aware of the various cognitive and affective biases, and is able to safely blend cognitive intuitive and analytical styles according to the particular task at hand. This last is especially important. It invokes the concept of situational awareness--knowing what has gone before, what is happening now, anticipating what is coming, and then having one’s cognitive engine in the right gear. Occasionally, it may have to be meta-cognitively kicked up a notch to match the situation.
So how might we improve the quality of our own decisions? Some of Croskerry's recommendations are obvious (although we often fail to take advantage of them): Make your workspace physically comfortable. Get enough sleep. Resist "throughput pressures" and take the time you need to think clearly.
But he also touches on two topics that require more effort to fully understand and integrate into our daily routines:
1. Be aware of cognitive biases.
Croskerry believes that some of our heuristics are by-products of evolution:
[T]here are persuasive arguments that we may be hard-wired to respond to certain features of our environment as well as to processing information in predictable ways... If there is any feature of cognitive activity that might influence whether or not our genes get into the next generation, decision-making would appear to be a good bet - presumably good decision-makers have a higher rate of survival.
But this suggests that we need to take great care to understand and compensate for the biases that stem from our cognitive inheritance:
If we come to accept that certain [cognitive dispositions to respond] are, indeed, hard-wired, there are important implications... If heuristic strategies are the stuff upon which cognition evolved...it places an even stronger imperative on the need for research into de-biasing strategies - finding ways of undoing our innate tendencies that evolved in simpler times and which now may be counter productive in modern medicine.
How to put this into practice? One way to start is to understand the cognitive biases that may be affecting our decision-making. (I suspect I'm predisposed toward confirmation bias.) Awareness by itself is insufficient to create change, but change is impossible without it.
2. Match the appropriate cognitive style to the task at hand.
This point raises a number of questions that are well worth further exploration: What are the different cognitive styles at my disposal? What's my default style? To what extent can I change styles? And how much effort will be required to do so? That said, I think it's possible to boil it down to a simple imperative: Learn when to trust our instincts...and when to distrust them.
As Croskerry notes, situational awareness is key, and even in a state of heightened perception we may have to "meta-cognitively [kick it] up a notch" to match our style to the situation. Essentially this means we sometimes need to "think about how we're thinking." Should we go with our intuition? Or should we discount our intuition and be more analytical? And clearly, familiarity with the cognitive biases noted above will help us select the right cognitive style.
For Further Reading
- When Heuristics Go Bad
- Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet (Buster Benson)
- Cognitive Bias Codex (Designed by John Manoogian III using Benson's framework)
- Large format paper version (Design Hacks)
- Wikipedia's list of psychological heuristics
- Strategic decisions: When can you trust your gut? (Interview with Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein)
- Conditions for Intuitive Expertise (Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein)
Updated July 2018.