Be aware of cognitive biases

Awareness and assessment of risk, and decisions made based on those assessments, occur at all levels of an organisation. These decisions often require people to make accurate judgments about future likelihoods. A well-researched factor known to influence the accuracy of decision making is cognitive bias.

Some description

Cognitive or thinking biases result from the way in which we process information. We use Type 1 processes that are intuitive and automatic, which rely on heuristics or ‘short cuts’. 

They allow us to make faster decisions and help us absorb large amounts of information. These short cuts, however, can create biases or deviations from rational decision making, which can lead to errors.

For example, cognitive bias can lead people to underestimate risk exposure or to overestimate the ability of controls to mitigate hazards. Overcoming these biases requires engagement of Type 2 processes, which are reflective and require more mental effort and control. For critical decisions, such as evaluating HSE risks in an operation or responding to an unusual process upset, these effortful thinking processes must be engaged to help us select appropriate judgments and actions.

There are many such cognitive biases. For example, Confirmation Bias is a tendency to favour information that confirms our existing beliefs and supports our preferred decision, while de-emphasising or avoiding information that contradicts these views. A recent example of Confirmation Bias comes from the Deep Water Horizon incident. The drilling rig crew obtained a negative pressure test result that indicated the cement cap may be leaking and subject to blowout. The crew believed this could be explained by different mechanisms. They then performed a second test, which gave a more favourable result. Given the ambiguous test results, the crew accepted the favourable test result as satisfactory.

So what can organisations do?

There are a number of evidence based methods that organisations can employ to help counter thinking biases that can lead to decision making errors. Some examples are explained below.

Educational methods – Organisations can include education on cognitive biases in their training and development curriculum, including leadership programmes. Such training may include practical exercises to help people understand key biases, identify circumstances where they might impair their decision making, and provide actions to help counter them. Scenario or simulation training can also be designed to trigger certain biases, thus helping to educate participants about them and about the potential resulting errors.

Decision support tools – Specific tools can be developed to test for the specific biases. These may be particularly beneficial for safety or business critical decisions. Such tools or questions could also be built into existing organisational decision making tools.

Behavioural frameworks – Cognitive bias may be easier to identify in others than ourselves, so organisations can define and promote behaviours that encourage detection of bias and errors. Some examples include seeking others’ opinions and alternative views, checking others’ work for bias and errors, providing constructive feedback, and seeking evidence to support judgments. Such behaviours can be built into organisational or safety culture frameworks.

Selection processes – Organisations can design selection processes to assess for cognitive ability and thinking styles, individual differences which have been shown to help avoid some thinking biases.

Human factors management – Some human factors issues, such as fatigue and workload, can exacerbate cognitive bias as they impair Type 2 reflective processes needed to ‘decouple’ from Type 1 intuitive responses. Organisations can assess their strengths and gaps against a broader human factors framework and execute a robust plan for integration of human factors principles and approaches into operations.

For more information about increasing awareness of cognitive bias in your organisation, please contact  or Richard Scaife in UK (richard@keilcentre.co.uk) or Nicole Gray in Australia (nicole@keilcentre.com.au).

Some of our clients include:

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