Every financial advisor, every lawyer, every doctor, accountant and engineer has a thinking defect. The psychologists call it cognitive fixation. I think conclusion jumping describes it best.
Here’s how it works. A person appears with a set of characteristics that leads to a certain conclusion. There are heuristics or rules of thumb that describe the situation. Therefore the answer must be …..
I have a fever, fatigue and aching joints. I have the flu. But, if I said I have sensitivity to light, a headache, a fever, fatigue and a stiff neck, I might be properly be tested for meningitis.
In the second case there are more symptoms and in a different order. If fever is first, there is a better chance of hearing flu. Recall the idea of anchoring. The first fact becomes dominant. Salespeople like that one. In financial planning, medicine, law and architecture, order can make a difference.
As a patient, present your most unusual symptoms first. A similar strategy is probably valid for other professions too.
Most problems are strategic. Tactics cannot apply successfully without a purpose, most professions are tactical and focus on solutions too soon. Every professional must work on diagnosis. Diagnosis, or problem definition, is the key first step. And the methods are changing.
Someone, somewhere is working on using computers to do diagnosis. In medicine for example, a computer with a script and a massive historic database could work through the problem with the patient. Computers have advantages over humans in that they are infinitely patient, have access to more information, and never forget. They are without ego and do not mind saying they don’t know yet, but need a specific test to move forward. They are fearless. Humans might order all the tests just to cover themselves.
Their weakness is that computers have very limited people skills. Perhaps an assistant is needed to explain the terms and to maintain the patient’s motivation to finish.
Someone looking at medicine as a career might wish to pick a specialty that is not subject to this sort of change. Radiologists, for example, could be in trouble. A computer could match a given X-ray against a million other similar ones, access the outcomes from the ones chosen, and provide a correct diagnosis very often. When not able to provide a diagnosis, it might ask for other x-rays or other tests before deciding.
For a computer with millions of examples, finding the one in a million diagnosis is no harder than finding a one in ten diagnosis. Not so for a human.
Professionals should avoid cognitive fixation and rules of thumb until they have processed as much information as they can discover and assessed the case as unique.
Well defined problems tend to be well solved problems.
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.