Cognition refers to the way our brain gathers and understands information. “Cognitive biases, also known as ‘heuristics’, are cognitive shortcuts used to aid our decision-making. A heuristic can be thought of as a cognitive ‘rule of thumb’ or cognitive guideline that one subconsciously applies to a complex situation to make decision-making easier and more efficient.” (O'Sullivan et al, 2018). Cognition has been extensively studied by the psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman.
The study of cognition is dominated by a ‘dual process model’.
System 1 describes automatic thinking – rapid, intuitive judgements. Automatic thinking depends on pattern recognition – therefore, if no pattern is recognised or the wrong pattern is recognised, an error can occur by activating the incorrect mental model.
System 2 describes analytical decision-making – a slower, reasoned judgement is taken through rationalisation and deliberation. “Analytical cognition is a slow, fully conscious, cognitive process. It consumes more mental effort than automatic thinking” (Mitchell, 2013). As humans we default to automatic, rather than analytic, mode.
The table below shows the differences between automatic (unconscious) and analytical (conscious) thinking.
|System 1: automatic||System 2: analytical|
|Cognition||Subconscious||Uses working memory|
Used for abstract reasoning
We need to use analytical decision-making when:
- A task is difficult, critical or dangerous
- We have not encountered an environment or task before
- We need to prioritise competing tasks.
As humans, we all have biases in our cognitive processing which will influence decision-making, many of which overlap. We tend to search for, favour and recall information that confirms our point of view. This is an internal bias. As humans, we like to prove ourselves right! External biases can also influence our decision-making from the environment in which we work – for example, available resources or pressure from others regarding time constraints.
Mitchell P. Safer Care – Human Factors for Healthcare. Cove: Swan & Horn; 2013.