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Big Decisions That Go Wrong - Psychologists ask why ignore the research?

Originally Published 17 January 2001

Psychology Professors Nick Chater and Koen Lamberts from the University of Warwick's Institute for Applied Cognitive Science are concerned that so often lately in government and business we hear of big decisions that go wrong - yet almost 2 decades of cognitive science research that could have helped shape better decision making seems to have been almost completely ignored.

However, the researchers have had a literally overwhelming response to their offer to explain to decision makers how this research could help them. A presentation in the University of Warwick's London office, in Tufton St, Westminster on Thursday 18 January 2001, was so oversubscribed within days of being announced that they are having to repeat it the same day.

One of the key questions they will cover in their presentation is how good experts' judgments really are. Referring to experimental studies of human decision making, they will argue that experts often perform worse than simple statistical models in judgements about a wide range of topics, from criminal re-offending, academic performance, to financial investments. The same studies surprisingly also show that even long years of experience may not translate into improved decision-making ability.

Experts are often also overconfident in their judgements, although studies have shown that they do have a slightly more accurate view of their abilities than novices. Yet, experts are often overly conservative, fearing that a single error will blemish their reputation permanently. This might lead to reluctance to admit previous errors and to change decisions, even if they are demonstrably wrong.

What can decision makers do?

Accept imprecision from experts if they say a final figure could be between 4-20 million accept the extremes of that range and do not force them into a pointless precise figure you are then stuck with.

  • Break away from "group think" and encourage a range of opinions by experts acting outside and independently of a group decision making process.
  • If reality proves different from expectation immediately adjust future expectations and give pull-out decisions to those outside the group to stop the original decision makers digging themselves a bigger and bigger hole.
  • Change the blame culture. Praise, or at least support, people that have the courage to walk away from something that has not worked rather than hanging on till the grim end.

Press are welcome to come along to the 5pm Thursday 18th January briefing at the University's office in 11 Tufton St London, contact Peter Dunn below to let us know if you are coming.

For further information please contact:

Professor Nick Chater
Dept of Psychology
0771 517 1479

Further information about the above press release and all other media services at the University of Warwick can be obtained from:

Peter Dunn, Press Officer
Public Affairs Office
Senate House
University of Warwick
Coventry, CV4 7AL
West Midlands
Tel: 024 76 523708