Thinking Wrong: How Common Errors in Thinking Processes Lead to Poor Judgments and Poor Decisions Pt. 1

By Paul Wiefels

Part One

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University estimate that as many as 160,000 patients each year suffer permanent damage or death as a result of diagnostic mistakes.  Not surprisingly, they are also the leading cause of malpractice claims.  Healthcare providers have been striving to reduce this number and many of the latest developments in healthcare technology are aimed at this problem including better automation and accuracy in lab testing; the use of big data and data mining to spot patterns of bad calls; online services that provide additional suggestions for differential diagnoses; and so on.

Mindsets in the healthcare community are changing too.  Clinicians are being trained (or retrained) to question their own biases and thinking in an effort to come to the right conclusions when confronted with conflicting data and multiple opinions.

But is the potential for flawed thinking more prevalent among healthcare providers simply because of the complexities of understanding and reducing morbidity and mortality, and the sheer numbers associated with healthcare?  Or is the phenomenon more widespread, comprising a part of what it is to be human?  Neuroscientists will tell you that the answer is obvious.

As management consultants and advisors, we grapple with this every day since our stock-in-trade is rooted in our ability to help our clients understand and solve business challenges.  To do this effectively, we must recognize the traps that we set for ourselves in “thinking things through.”  Grinding reams of data, plowing through endless volumes of secondary research or uncovering every stone does not necessarily offset our going-in biases.  These biases can limit from the start, our point of entry to the challenge.

And such biases are numerous.  They proliferate across industries, disciplines, and geographies. They are not caused by forces we can’t yet understand, for we do.  We just don’t spot them early enough or we fall prey to some of the more subtle or insidious of them that are just as damaging.

I have been intrigued by this topic for some time as I experience it every day in both my personal and professional life.  I see it on television, on Twitter, and on Facebook.  This past year, sadly, we’ve seen it color our political discourse; in the shallow, spurious, and mean-spirited way that politicians pitch their narratives, heavy on statements that invoke correlation or causation for example, yet often devoid of facts that would support such conclusions.

My plan is to share with you some of the more obvious ones that we all experience and also reveal a few that I had never thought about or recognized—until my research took me there.

My hope is that you may find this interesting enough to share your own experiences as well.