In early August, my mother turned 97 years old. Unfortunately, this wonderful event was accompanied by a sad one; my siblings and I moved our mother from an assisted living facility to a dementia unit.
Recently, I attended a mediator training session put on by the U.S. District Court – Central District of California. Two of its speakers, Doug Noll and Don Philbin, addressed the issue of cognitive bias. As explained on ScienceDaily.com, “a cognitive bias is any of a wide range of observer effects identified in cognitive science and social psychology … that are common to all human beings.”
According to Wikipedia, these include the following:
- Ambiguity Effect - the tendency to avoid options for which missing information makes the probability seem unknown
- Anchoring - the tendency to rely too heavily or “anchor” on a past reference or on one trait or piece of information when making decisions
- Availability cascade - a self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse
- Bandwagon Effect - the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same, i.e., “groupthink” or “herd behavior”
- Confirmation Bias - the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions
- Framing Effect - drawing different conclusions from the same information depending on how or by whom the information is presented
While I expected to see some of these cognitive biases during my mediations, I never thought they would reveal themselves in my actual day to day life. But they did.
In moving our mother to a dementia unit, we had to visit several different ones in the area to decide which one we thought would be best for Mom. In making that decision, we came to the point of deciding between the Red facility and the Blue facility (made up names). While we had known about the Blue facility for years and heard only good things about it (“availability cascade”? and/or “bandwagon effect”), we decided to look at the Red facility when someone I respected and trusted a lot told me about it (“framing effect”). She implored us to at least tour the facility. She knew mom and so, presumably, knew what we needed and what would be good for mom.
So we looked at the Red facility and came away impressed. But we also looked at the Blue facility, and were equally impressed. The Red facility had certain attributes that the Blue facility did not have, while the Blue facility had other attributes that the Red facility did not have.
How did we decide? Unwittingly, we used cognitive biases. Since we had more information on the Blue facility than on the Red facility, we started leaning towards the former (“ambiguity effect”). We also used “anchoring” in that we compared both facilities to the one mother was presently in to compare and contrast whether her care would be more of the same or better or worse. We also used “anchoring” in terms of the monthly expense, comparing mom’s present monthly expense to the expense at either the Red facility or the Blue facility. We also looked at the recent state inspection reports that were online and the corporate history/background of each facility (“availability cascade” or “bandwagon effect”), placing paramount importance on the fact that the Blue facility had passed state inspections with flying colors. We also noted that the Red facility was in a state of corporate transition and could not find much information about the new owner on the internet. This left us uneasy. (“ambiguity effect.”) We also paid attention to the “reputation” of each facility among our friends and professional caregivers. We would mention that we were looking at each facility and gauge the reaction we got from them in response. We always got a very positive response to our mention of the Blue facility!
In the end, we chose the Blue facility. We moved mom there and for the rest of that day and the next, we engaged in “confirmation bias” – seeking information that would confirm that we made the right decision. After a few days, we came to fully believe we chose correctly! (more cognitive bias!)
The reality of our “biases” did not hit me until afterwards when my sibling started questioning me about whether we had made the right choice. At that point and given my recent training, I had my “ah hah” moment; our cognitive biases were playing out in real life!
The moral? We all have “biases” at play all the time each and every day, and we do not even know or realize it!
by Phyllis G. Pollack