Tip #4
Common Thinking Errors

Critical decision making involves making well-informed decisions that are grounded in observable evidence. Thinking errors interfere with our ability to make good decisions. Essentially, our bias interferes with our capacity to interpret the evidence clearly, thereby hindering our clinical judgment and decision making.

Stories from the Field

Strengths-based supervision was developed to support implementation of family-centered practice principles in child welfare. This model can be used when supervising public child welfare workers and service providers. I was recently talking about common thinking errors with an audience of investigative supervisors, and this content seemed to really resonate. At one point, I was talking about the common thinking error of ecological fallacy. Ecological fallacy involves assuming something is true about an individual based on their association with a larger group. To illustrate, if we know the state of Texas is a “red” state, and assume our friend who lives in Texas will vote for a Republican candidate simply because they live in Texas, our conclusion is in fact an ecological fallacy. Just because something is true about a group, does not mean all people who identify of that group will have that quality on an individual level.

Related to child welfare, we were talking about how after many removals from a particular apartment complex, workers could start to assume any investigation from that area would result in a removal. One supervisor in the audience raised her hand and said, “Ya, I can tell when that is happening when my workers say things like ‘better bring the car seat’, something they would say when they expected to remove based on location of the report before ever even entering the home.” This example reminds us how experience can cause us to extrapolate content from one case to another. Assuming a new investigation requires a removal just because of the location of one’s home is an example of the ecological fallacy.

These errors are also prevalent in clinical practice. I remember when I was a new family therapist working with a grandmother who was caring for her two pre-teen grandsons. The youth had been removed a year ago and grandma entered counseling appearing overwhelmed. She talked about how difficult it was to parent teens these days. She described their lack of respect for her authority, their selfishness and lack of initiative, and her frustration with their failure to appreciate her willingness to parent them. When asked for an example, she said they refused to clean up after themselves citing their bedroom and bathroom as barely livable due to the debris, smell, and bacteria. The boys challenged her impression and said they did in fact clean up after themselves and did appreciate her. However, feeling great admiration for this grandmother, and thinking about adolescent development, it was not hard to imagine what was happening here.

Grandma ended up falling and breaking her foot, so our next counseling session was moved to an in-home visit. When I entered the home I was surprised to see freshly vacuumed carpet, plush white furniture, and both bedrooms with beds made and everything put away. I praised the boys for their progress and Grandma was not pleased. When I asked what she was frustrated by, she said the boys continue to be disrespectful through their living conditions and cited “not vacuuming under the sofa” as her illustration. I realized at that moment my assessment that this was a problem of teen rebellion or lack of initiative was off; as it turned out, helping Grandma to set more realistic expectations ended up being more important. Looking back, I committed the ecological fallacy by taking Grandma’s side and assuming her description of disrespect and lack of cleanliness seemed quite believable considering developmental theories that acknowledge adolescents need to separate from parents which can lead to acts of disrespect and rebellion. And, my great respect for Grandma and what she had taken on, in some ways clouded my judgment leading to another common thinking error, emotional reasoning.

Being aware of these common thinking errors can help us to recognize when we are making decisions on feelings rather than evidence, an important point to reinforce during supervisory conferences with child welfare specialists.

Take Action

Learn to listen for key words or phrases that suggest a supervisee’s judgment is hindered by a common thinking error. Words like “always” or “never” could mean all-or-nothing thinking is happening. Grand generalizations like “people who live in that area” are suggestive of an ecological fallacy. And notice emotions like fear, frustration, or even admiration, because these can lead to emotional reasoning.

This week, when meeting in your supervisory conferences, listen for these clues and take an opportunity to step back, ask some questions, and deconstruct the way one of your staff members is interpreting clinical data/observations.

Develop a list of tentative, reflective questions that can help supervisees open their minds to multiple interpretations of the data moving toward critical thinking.