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FEATURE


INVESTIGATING INVESTIGATIONS


Tom McNeill, Senior Associate at BCL Solicitors LLP, asks how far structured investigations go in combatting cognitive bias.


A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that impacts judgment. The concept was first proposed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Much is now understood about cognitive bias and the implications for decision- making. Unfortunately, that understanding is rarely applied in the criminal justice process.


The HSE is more advanced than some investigating authorities in that it recognises and even provides some limited guidance on cognitive bias: “The investigation should be thorough and structured to avoid bias and leaping to conclusions. Don’t assume you know the answer and start finding solutions before you complete the investigation. A good investigation involves a systematic and structured approach.”


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But how far does a structured investigation go in combatting cognitive bias?


Health and safety investigations are particularly susceptible to bias because they are frequently more subjective and complex than other criminal investigations. The fundamental question is usually ‘why’ (rather than for example ‘who’); and the ‘why’ concerns the behaviour of organisations and not merely individuals.


As Daniel Kahneman explains in his book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, the brain is a machine for jumping to conclusions; and while difficult problems are by their nature hard to solve, the brain is no less inclined to use cognitive shortcuts to ‘solve’ them.


Particular problems arise when emotions are involved, such as in relation to policy preferences. Kahneman writes: “Your political preference determines the arguments that you find compelling. If you like the current health policy, you believe its benefits are substantial and its costs more manageable than the costs of alternatives…[A] search for information and


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