Stephen A,. Webb
Glasgow Caledonian University
“People classified in a certain way tend to conform to
or grow into the ways that they are described, but
they also evolve in their own ways, so that the
classifications and descriptions have to be constantly
Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul
John Dewey said that liberal democracies would
work better if they stopped trying to give
universalistic self-justifications, stopped appealing
to notions liked “rationality”, “human nature” and
“science”, and instead viewed themselves simply
as promising social experiments. In other words
Dewey would be more satisfied if liberal
democracies abandoned a significant chunk of the
Enlightenment project of “rationality”.
Increasingly public sector professionals, such as
social workers and teachers, are required to be
self-conscious about their reasoning process in
relation to decision making. They should think
about how they make judgments and reach
conclusions, not just about the judgments and
conclusions themselves. In social work,
practitioners are increasingly required to make
what are called “defensible decisions”.
Webster's dictionary defines judgment as arriving
at a "decision or conclusion on the basis of
indications and probabilities when the facts are
not clearly ascertained." Judgment is what experts
use to fill gaps in their knowledge. It entails going
beyond the available information and is the
principal means of coping with uncertainty. It
always involves an analytical leap, from the
known into the uncertain.
Judgment is an integral part of all social work.
While the optimal goal of intelligence collection is
complete knowledge, this goal is seldom reached
in practice. Almost by definition social work,
involves considerable uncertainty.
Social workers or teachers are commonly working
with incomplete, ambiguous, and often
contradictory data. The social workers function
might be described as transcending the limits of
incomplete information through the exercise of
What have the past fifty years of cognitive science
research taught us about decision making?
Human cognition is not under our control
We are rarely aware of our judgement and decision
That our verbal and written reports about those
processes are not be trusted.
In other words, we live in a world of flawed judgement
due to irreducible uncertainty and duality of error.
Irreducible uncertainty refers to uncertainty that cannot
be reduced to by any activity at the moment that the
action is required.
Irreducible uncertainty: No one can say with
certainty whether child abuse will occur, when
it will occur (if it does), to what extent it will
occur (if it does) or whether it is likely to
happen again (if it did occur). Nor is there
agreement on the degree of uncertainty
involved in child abuse cases. These kinds of
uncertainty will remain whatever mode of
organization is undertaken in child protection
at a national level.
Duality of error: Error will always occur in child
protection decision making. The error will be a
version of two different kinds. The first type of error
concerns the risks and costs of taking precautionary
action should child abuse be suspected, and the
second consist of the risk and costs of not taking
precautionary action should child abuse be suspected
Duality of Error as False Positives and False
Cognitive science refers to this duality of error as
false positives and false negatives. The false
positive, although usually associated with
medicine, has obvious applicability to social work.
A false positive refers to accepting a warning sign
or signal as true when in fact it is (or will be
shown) to be false. The costs associated with false
positive may be considerable.
During the Orkney child abuse events in Scotland
it was alleged a hooded, masked and cloaked
figure known as "The Master", who also dressed as
a Mutant Ninja Turtle, and who was identified as
the local vicar, had led dances around a bonfire at
a local quarry. Police seized items associated with
"black magic" from the parents' houses. These
included a book of erotic poetry, and Oriental
statue of a couple making love, a letter written to
the tooth fairy by one of the children, and a Guy
In 1994 a government inquiry has concluded that satanic
abuse does not exist. The three-year investigation by the
Department of Health found no evidence to substantiate
any of 84 cases which allege children were sexually abused
during black magic rites. The report was commissioned in
1991 after children had been snatched from their homes by
authorities in Rochdale and the Orkneys. Some have argued
that Evangelical Christians are blamed for the stories.
Speak of the Devil: Tales of satanic abuse in contemporary
England by Jean La Fontaine, Cambridge University Press,
The false negative, is when the alarm does not sound
when it should. This type of error appears to be the
kind that occurred in the Climbie case. Again this can
be costly for children and social workers.
Just as important are the ways in which we can fool
ourselves about decisions. There are many mental devices
we use every day to help with decision-making tasks.
Known as heuristics, many of these rules-of-thumb can
actually reduce our chances of making good decisions.
Heuristics are about selective processes or what we pay
attention to in order to help us make a decision. They are
internal devices within the brain that help us make “quick
fire” or fast and frugal decisions about something or some
event. They are economic triggers that help us to make
Our memories of the past, although more
indirect, are no different from our perceptions of
the present. In both cases a selection is made,
which means that some elements in our
perception will feature more prominently, and
others will remain hidden in the background. So
in our cognitive perception of reality, the
importance of some elements of experience is
raised, whereas other elements or likelihoods are
pushed into the background. We are not aware of
the selection being made, and the emphasis being
Heuristics do not take into account the real
probability or likelihood that something will or will
not occur. Heuristics generally fall into four
categories known as availability, overconfidence,
anchoring and adjustment and
representativeness. There are several heuristics that
have been classified as “hard wired” into our cognitive
processes. TWO main types are often discussed:
People using the availability heuristic will judge an event
as either frequent or likely to occur if it is easy to imagine
or recall, i.e., if it is readily available to one's memory. If an
event is truly frequent, availability can be a very
appropriate cue. However, availability can be affected by
many factors other than frequency of occurrence.
Example: The film Independence Day could convince
many people that the risk of alien invasion is either
probable or imminent, when in fact the risk is at best
nonexistent, or at worst no different than before the film
was released. Another effect of the availability heuristic is
the mistake of viewing the future only in terms of the
The representativeness heuristic is based on the
fact that we tend to judge events by how much
they resemble other events which are similar or
with which we are familiar.
If we did X with Mrs B, then it makes sense to do
X with Mrs T because the situation is similar. In so
doing, we ignore relevant facts that should be
included in our decision making process, but are
The reason why our mental faculties often fail us
today probably has to do with the fact that we are
still "programmed" or "hard wired" to deal with
life-threatening situations that occurred eons ago,
when reflexive reactions were critical to survival.
Reaction time was at a premium then, so
unconscious or subconscious decision-making
was the fastest way to literally remove oneself
from harm's way. Heuristics are fast and furious
economic devices that help us make decisions.
Recognizing which heuristics interfere with our ability to
make accurate judgements about risk and uncertainty is
the first step in overcoming them.
The paradox is that because heuristics have evolved to
assist in decision making its very hard “to think” about
them because they are based on taken-for-granted
situations to help us economize in our decision making.
This is why they are so hard to detect.
Heuristics generally fall into four categories known as
availability, overconfidence, anchoring and
adjustment and representativeness. Lets look at two
others types of heuristic at work in decision making.
There are many ways in which people tend to be
overconfident about their judgements regarding
risk. Importantly, it isn't just laypersons who are
at the mercy of these heuristics. Experts can be
just as overconfident in their assessments as well.
Thus, an understanding of heuristics which lead
to overconfidence is critical, since we can't always
rely on the experts to overcome their own biases.
People tend to place great faith in their own
People also tend to be sure that bad things "won't
happen to them." Even though exposure to
smoking, is the same for one person as another,
each of us tends to see ourselves as being at a
lower risk level than our neighbors. This effect
helps explain the shock we feel when something
happens to us, but the lack of shock felt when it
happens to "the next guy." (This is the same type
of situation that leads 85 percent of UK drivers to
rate themselves as "better than average" drivers!)
It is not uncommon for us to make estimates by
starting with a value we know (the anchor) and
adjusting from that point. The initial value colors
our perception of future events because we judge
the probability of the future by looking at what
has occurred in the past. This is how stereotypes
occur in social work thinking about particular
clients. Young Johnny’s Mom has always been
neglectful of her other children so it’s likely that
she will neglect Johnny.
Alexander George has identified a number of less-than-optimal common
strategies people adopt in making decisions in the face of incomplete
information and multiple, competing values and goals:
• Satisficing: Selecting the first identified alternative that appears “good
enough,” rather than examining all alternatives to determine which is “best.”
• Incrementalism: Focusing on a narrow range of alternatives representing
marginal change, without considering the need for dramatic change from an
• Consensus: Opting for the alternative that will elicit the greatest agreement
and support. Simply telling the boss what he or she wants to hear is one
version of this.
• Reasoning by analogy: Choosing the alternative that appears most likely to
avoid some previous error or to duplicate a previous success.
Relying on a set of principles or maxims that distinguish a “good” from a “bad”
Social workers practice is conducted in a manner very
similar to the satisficing mode (selecting the first
identified alternative that appears "good enough").
The social worker identifies what appears to be the
most likely hypothesis, that is, the tentative estimate,
explanation, or description of the situation that
appears most accurate.
Herbert Simon is the key researcher who has studied
“satisficing” in context. He opposes the dominant rational
decision maker model with the satisficing model.
Information is collected and organized according to
whether they support this tentative judgment, and the
hypothesis is accepted if it seems to provide a reasonable
fit to the data. The good practitioner would then make a
quick review of other possible hypotheses and of evidence
not accounted for by the preferred judgment to ensure
that he or she has not overlooked some important
consideration. Satisficing often leads to something called
“the self fulfilling prophecy”, in which outcomes are based
entirely on initial beliefs and opinion rather than the
This approach has three weaknesses:
the selective perception that results from focus on
a single hypothesis,
failure to generate a complete set of competing
and a focus on evidence that confirms rather than
item of evidence helps the analyst determine the
relative likelihood of alternative hypotheses.
Deliberative versus Non Deliberative
Non Deliberative constitutes what we do 95% of
the time. It’s fuzzy thinking whereby thoughts,
feelings pass us by without us giving
consideration to them. We exist in a sort of
dream-like state most of our waking time. Non
deliberative is also rule-bound and based on basic
habits or rituals in which we do things without
This distinction developed by Herbert Dreyfus is
very instructive in the way we think about
cognition and decision making in social work.
Non Deliberative = Daydreaming, fleeting,
transitory moments + habit and convention
(unthought-of rules that we acquire over time)
Deliberative = Requires an intentional push to do
something. Deliberative thinking is a mode of
attention whereby something is given an effort to
1. It is not always linear.
2. It is often holistic, or too generalized.
3. The information on which the reasoning is
based is often not known to be true.
4. Practitioners often have to make decisions
based on incomplete information.
5. Practitioners sometimes encounter and must
decide between conflicting information.
6. Practitioners often make unconscious use of
tacit knowledge, which they may be unable to
Glasgow Caledonian University, Department of Social
Work, Cowcaddens Road, Glasgow, Scotland