Monday, November 20, 2017

Sunk Kidney Bias: A Lethal Form of Sunk Cost Bias

Hal Arkes
The heuristics and biases program of Kahneman and Tversky, once an obscure niche of cognitive psychology, became recognized among lay persons with Kahneman's Nobel prize in economics in 2002.  The popularity of the program surged with Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow several years ago and several among the scores of related books about behavioral economics became best-sellers.  This year, Richard Thaler was the Nobel laureate in economics for his work in behavioral economics.   I became aware of heuristics and biases just before Kahneman's Nobel and started looking for them in medicine in 2003.  We (Aberegg, Haponik, and Terry, Chest, 2005) indeed found evidence for omission bias, and have discovered other biases along the way, some which are very intriguing but we aren't even sure what to name them (Aberegg, Arkes, and Terry, Medical Decision Making, 2006).  My point here is that these biases are useful but difficult to identify as patterns systematically operating within medical practice in predictable ways - they pop up here and there only to recede and reappear years later, if they are recognized at all.

Then there are biases about the biases.  Highly cited expositions of biases in clinical care, such as those of the insightful emergency physician Pat Croskerry (Academic Medicine, 2003), among many others) very often surmise the presence of biases in clinical care, without the kind of empirical evidence that established the biases in the first place.  Sometimes, new and probably useful biases are proposed (such as "search satisfycing"), without any empirical evidence, at all in any domain, for their existence.  They are merely postulates.  (Granted, empirical evidence is very difficult to generate, this the reason I don't do this kind of research anymore.)  Finally, the descriptions of the biases applied to medicine are often strained, or just plain wrong.  My favorite is the bastardization of "anchoring and adjustment" into a description of any time a physician seizes upon a diagnosis and discounts disconfirming evidence or fails to consider alternatives.  This is not anchoring and adjustment.  Anchoring refers to a numerical anchor, and failure to adjust away from it when providing numerical estimates.  Here is a summary of the original descriptions, from the wikipedia entry on anchoring and adjustment: