Strategies for Making Better Decisions

We recently published a couple of posts about the impact of cognitive biases and emotion on decision making.  In the posts, we offered some suggestions on how to limit biases and emotions in order to make better decisions.  Recently, we came across a paper by Jeffrey W. Brewer, a member of the Risk and Reliability Department at Sandia National Laboratories, that discusses strategies for overcoming cognitive biases and irrational risk perception.  Brewer’s specific discussion deals with overcoming biases in the context of explaining the benefits of nuclear power; however, his general discussion offers a number of strategies that can be applied in any business setting. 

Brewer reduces the strategies to a simple statement that focuses on thinking carefully, question assumptions, and using the best available evidence:

Techniques to counter the undesirable tendencies [of cognitive biases] include a strong commitment to reflect on one’s biases in a specific decision making situation, to make decisions using the most valuable quantitative data available, and to carefully map out what one considers important in the decision making setting.

He then offers ten specific strategies that can be used to overcome our biases when we make critical decisions:

  1. Consciously raise the questions, “What do we know…?  How do we know…?  Why do we accept or believe…?  What is the evidence for…?” when studying or approaching a problem.
  2. Be clearly and explicitly aware of gaps in available information.  Recognize when a conclusion is reached or a decision is made in absence of complete information and be able to tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty (which can be painful in the medico-legal-claims environment where the goal is total predictability).  Recognize when one is taking something on faith without having examined he “How do we know…? Why do we believe…?” questions.
  3. Discriminate between observation and inference, between established fact and subsequent conjecture.
  4. Recognize that words are symbols of ideas and not the ideas themselves.  Recognize the necessity of using only words of prior definition, rooted in shared experience, in forming a new definition and in avoiding being misled by technical jargon.
  5. Probe for assumptions (particularly the implicit, unarticulated assumptions) behind a line of reason.
  6. Draw inferences from data, observations, or other evidence and recognize when firm inferences cannot be drawn.
  7. Perform hypothetico-deductive reasoning, that is, given a particular situation, apply relevant knowledge of principles and constraints and visualize, in the abstract, the plausible outcomes that might result from various changes one can imagine being imposed on the system.
  8. Discriminate between inductive and deductive reasoning; that is, be aware when an argument is being made from the particular to the general or from the general to the particular.
  9. Test one’s own line of reasoning for internal consistency and thus develop intellectual self-reliance.
  10. Develop self-consciousness concerning one’s own thinking and reasoning process.

While not every decision in the medico-legal-claims environment requires such careful attention, we do make high stakes decision involving significant monetary sums that can have profound impacts on employers, employees, and health care providers.  When we are tasked with making such important decisions, we should make an effort to ensure that we are making the best decision possible based on reason and the best available evidence.  Following Brewer’s strategies can help us do just that.

Although some of Brewer’s strategies are self-explanatory, some of them are not and all would benefit from a more extended individual treatment.  Over the course of the next few posts, we will address Brewer’s strategies in more detail, explaining exactly what each strategy means, why each strategy is important, and how each strategy can be implemented, using practical examples.

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