Bias and Flawed Decision-Making: Are We Hard-Wired to Make Bad Decisions?

One of the greatest challenges in mental health assessment, especially in the forensic arena, revolves around the need to prevent and manage the potential introduction and influence of bias during the investigation process, including during the examination and data analysis phases, and in drawing conclusions. As this is an extremely complex topic, I will devote several articles to this issue, offering insights from a variety of different perspectives.

When I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, the primary sources of my knowledge were my parents, teachers, newspapers, limited television, and the public library. In that era, we greatly respected the information available to us, in part because it was so hard to come by. Today we live in an entirely different world. Rather than struggling to find sources of accurate and helpful information, we instead are bombarded with information, primarily the result of the Internet.

The Internet has dramatically altered the world and our society in ways that we don’t yet fully understand or appreciate. Furthermore, its future course and impact is entirely unpredictable. I absolutely am not a Luddite, fearing the impact of technology on society; in fact, I have been immersed in computer-related technology since my 20s. However, I do feel that it is important that the professional community be aware that the influence of the Internet is far from benign. Indeed, I believe that it presents challenges unlike anything that civilization has yet to experience and confront.

When we have a question that needs answering and no one trustworthy is immediately available to provide an answer, we typically seek answers through an Internet search engine such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, YouTube, and more. We do so largely because it is easy, convenient and instantaneous. Perhaps that fact alone should raise red flags.

In the discussion that follows, I use “Google” as a generic descriptor for all Internet search engines, not only Google per se. When I Googled the words “no-fault”, it returned 55,100,000 results in 0.39 seconds. The word “custody” returned 81,800,000 results in 0.41 seconds. The term “judgment” returned 177,000,000 results in 0.33 seconds. At ten websites listed per page of results, this means that there are nearly 18 million pages that list websites regarding “judgments”. And how many pages of Google results does the average person typically review? 2? 3? 5? 10?

We assume that the most important information is going to be found in the first few pages of a Google search, but is it true that the most accurate and educational information about the topic is actually present in those first few pages of results? Are we wise in ignoring the remaining tens of millions of pages of information?

One of the most significant shortcomings of Google and all such search engines is that there is no measure of veracity tied to any of the webpages identified as relevant to the search. Thus, there is no way to determine if the information that you obtain from your search is completely accurate and truthful. The exactness of a person’s “knowledge” about a topic drawn from a Google search may depend upon the degree of truthfulness of the information contained in just the first few pages of results.

It is useful to understand how a website manages to reach the top of the list in a Google search, among the millions of webpages on a topic, something that Google calls “Pagerank”. Becoming listed among the first couple of pages of results is based upon many factors, the most important of which is the number of other Web pages that link to the page in question. In other words, the more that other websites mention your website, the higher on the list your website goes. So, if a particular website containing misinformation happens to be referenced on the websites of many equally misinformed individuals, then that website containing inaccuracies potentially can appear high up on the Google list.

Since most people review only the first few pages of Google results, their base of knowledge, which they believe to be the “truth” about a topic, actually can become somewhat corrupted and biased. Their view of the “truth” is now based in part upon possible distortions simply by taking advantage of the convenience and simplicity of an Internet search.

Why is this important to us? Because we do not know how to properly filter information provided to us. We don’t know how to separate the relevant from the irrelevant, how to separate truth from fiction.

In his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Nobel Prize winning author Dr. Daniel Kahneman exposes how and why our natural intuition is extremely biased. Our brains are comprised of two thinking systems, one that thinks fast, and one that thinks slowly. The first system that Thinks Fast operates automatically, intuitively, involuntary, and effortlessly — like when we drive, read a happy facial expression, or recall our age. The second system, one that Thinks Slow, requires slowing down, deliberating, solving problems, reasoning and analyzing, focusing, concentrating, considering other data, and not jumping to quick conclusions. The goal for us, expressed in Kahneman’s book, is how “to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely, and try harder to avoid making significant mistakes when the stakes are high”.

Thinking slow affects our bodies, our attention, and our energy. Because thinking slow takes work, we are prone instead to think fast, taking a path of least resistance. Dr. Kahneman tells us that “laziness is built deep into our nature”. Harvard neurologist, Dr. Steve Miller, who wrote about how our thinking process causes bias, remarked that when it comes to making decisions, “We are hard-wired to get it wrong”.

In other words, we human beings, by our biological nature, often make significant mistakes because we don’t want to exert our brains and think deeply, in case we might unnecessarily waste energy. This tendency to draw conclusions rapidly, without fully considering and exploring a substantial amount of the information available to us, and to make impulsive and often hasty decisions based on that information, occurs regardless of the source of that information. It just happens to be a natural fit for our Google-esque World, creating a perfect storm wherein we are overwhelmed with information from an Internet search, we review only a fraction of that data, we have no effective way of determining what is true and what is false, and then we make quick decisions based upon that set of information.

Our propensity to permit machines to do our thinking for us can result in changes in our understanding of the world around us and may adversely affect our effectiveness as professionals. For instance, a recently published study from the University of Waterloo in Canada found that people who spent more time using the search-engine function on their smartphones actually showed a decrease in mental ability and a lowered willingness to analyze information. Thus, we legal and mental health professionals remain highly vulnerable to the introduction of potential bias into our thinking and decision-making processes by virtue of doing something as seemingly innocent as performing an Internet search.

We professionals develop a heightened sense of awareness of our vulnerability to the types and sources of information that potentially can unfavorably influence our decision-making, that we recognize first and foremost the situations in which wrong decisions can have the greatest adverse impact on that which we care about most so that we engage in deep rather than rushed thinking, and that we remain constantly vigilant to those environmental factors that can interfere with our pursuit of truth.