In the caring professions our experiences are the cornerstone of our practice, setting our moral compass and future decision-making processes (heuristics). Despite each individual experience being important our brains are designed to weight and recall some experiences, including our practice ones, more readily than others, such as ones that trigger powerful emotions like fear, disgust, and anger. Practice ‘stories’ can be filed in our brain inside a red binder with ‘MUST RECALL REGULARY’ in bold marker. Out of a plethora of old cases we may remember only a handful in five to ten years’ time. Put simply, as professionals, we may only use a small proportion of our past experiences to develop a way of working with all future cases – a potentially skewed schema.
To give a simple example let’s say you go fishing off a pier and you know there are only cod and mackerel in the sea. What you don’t know is that cod are ten times more common. On the first day you catch 4 fish; 3 mackerel and 1 cod, then on the second day only 1 fish – a mackerel. If Captain Birdseye asks you about this fishing spot you will say that there are loads of mackerel and hardly any cod, having no perspective on how rare your catches were. Similarly, we would lambast a scientist for not having a large enough sample size to support their research conclusions, or for not correcting for some statistical selection bias. So, equally, we should ask ourselves, “are we asking ourselves enough questions about how our practice views and how they stack up into a working model?”
It does not take too much of a salmon leap to switch to the Social Work context here.
Let’s say in all your past experiences of working with single fathers in relation to child protection they have all been difficult to engage and show signs of physical abuse. When allocated your next similar case your past experiences will undoubtedly skew your future expectations. The question is, “how many similar cases will it take to cause a permanent belief system switch (conscious or unconscious)?”
One particularly influential belief system is the one held by our current PM (at time of writing Mr Sunak). His family settled in East Africa from India, with this community becoming an economically dominant force in both Kenya and Uganda. Roughly Asians where 2% of the population but they owned 66% of all the wealth.
When these African countries achieved independence from the British Empire the vast majority of Asians left with many using British passports to come to enter the UK. Sunak’s family did just that with his parents settling in Southampton. His mother was a pharmacist and his father a GP. Sunak’s parents had three children, one is our prime minister, one is the head of strategy at the UN and the other a psychologist. Sunak when interviewed always points out that nothing was handed to his family on a plate, but it was all achieved through hard work and sacrifice.
Sunak therefore believes that the government should support and not restrict hard working families as they could achieve outcomes similar to the Sunak’s. To use the earlier fishing analogy Sunak’s family were successful in catching some of the rarest fish in the ocean. Now their son, the prime minister, hands out rods for others expecting them to do the same. To illustrate this point, look out for the many stories about children from poor backgrounds getting straight A’s and going to Oxbridge…… You won’t find many. The success stories that there are have the perverse effect of keeping the lid firmly on the social mobility box. A few plucky stories block out the reality that there are a majority of hard-working families who barely make ends meet.
Why could a smart man like Sunak make such an error in assuming his specific experience can be generalized to the entire population. Well, like us Sunak has a brain that is hardwired to hold a finite number of peoples’ tales. This was famously proven by Dunbar’s work on monkeys and group size. His work demonstrated a link between neo cortex size and how many individuals could be in a primate’s social group. The larger the cortex the greater the potential group size. Even though humans have a larger brain than other primates there is still a hard limit to social group size Dunbar’s work suggests. We can only integrate so much social context and so many stories when we function in such a group. Our brains are ultimately finite. Whilst modern critics have latterly ganged up on Dunbar’s work for being statistically flawed, I feel there remains some truth in the general conclusion for us humans and our relationships. The relationship as found below in the graph is made more significant when you consider that the majority of us humans live in highly selective groups – rich alongside rich, or poor alongside poor, older people, young people, or selection around race or sex. In other words, we are limited both by absolute number and by variety. Can social workers hold in mind only a finite number of case stories that are highly likely to have some selection bias in terms of their characteristics?
Much of what we do as social workers involves hypothesising about situations based, often, on limited information. We start to build a hypothesis at the earliest point of contact. In fact, maybe even before the first physical contact. We maybe start to make assumptions from case recording or referral information. Daniel Kahneman, author of the wonderful ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, has concluded we have two aspects to our brains. We can let our automatic brain – or ‘System 1’ as he refers to it – run riot, jumping to conclusions! This automatic system is like being on autopilot. This part of our brain likes routine things and easy solutions. It relies, when thinking about people, on stereotypes that have been constructed for us and that we have added to. Ideas that sit in our subconscious mind. He says that we don’t like using ‘System 2’, our ‘deliberate’ brain, because it’s hard work. It takes effort to get this part of our brain going so that we can consciously and logically think things through. So, his idea goes, why would we not use a ready-made ‘model’ from our automatic brain like ‘all fathers in child protection cases are like ‘this’ or ‘that’’.
This can lead to bias in our hypothesising that we might not even spot. Confirmation bias is an operational mode where we select information from that which is available to ‘confirm’ the position we want it to. We form a view early on and then select information that supports that idea. When we fall into this trap gathering more information doesn’t necessarily yield a better decision. In fact, more information means we simply have more to select from to confirm our bias. As practitioners it’s important we consider whether we are relying on archetypes we have constructed from past experiences, or whether we are seeing the reality of the situation as it truly is.
We can also become anchored to a first impression – called the Anchoring Effect – which leads to that first impression becoming the only one relevant. Or, we anchor ourselves to a single factor as a root cause and miss others possible causes of the presenting circumstances. A famous experiment conducted by the magazine The Economist on MIT students gave an interesting insight into this. Initially they offered their publication as Web Only at $59 and Print & Web at $125. 68% of people went for web only version and 32% went for the Print + Web option. Wise MIT students! Same information, half the price! They offered their publication again, this time at three rates – Web Only $59, Print Only $125, and Print and Web $125. What happened? Well, no one went for the Print Only option. Why would you when you can have Print and Web for the same price. However! 84% chose the Print and Web option with the rest going for Web Only. This trick apparently is often used in marketing in a range of ways. People were anchored to the Print option thinking they were getting a fabulous deal – Print and Web for the same price as Print. Without this option in play most people went for the sensible Web only option. When we become anchored to a piece of information it exerts undue influence on us and clouds our judgment
With Sunak going to elite universities and Winchester college I wonder how diverse the ‘clan’ of 150 individuals housed in his brain is. How skewed is his idea of how the world operates. Is he anchored to a particular idea born out of his emotional attachments, role models and major life events. Does he have a ‘confirmation bias’ toward things that he will share (to a significant percentage) with the striding elite class who are a tiny majority of the population but constitute the votes Sunak needs to win a General Election in two years’ time.
As social workers we work at the total opposite end of the social mobility scale. We encounter the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable. Whilst the families we support are a growing proportion of society they still represent a minority. 95% of children do not have involvement from social care. As social workers do we have two world views? One which is narrow based on possible biases rooted in a ‘professional world’ view and one for the people we come across in day-to-day life where we pause and suspend judgment before deciding anything about them?
The Social Work superhero skill here is reflection.
Reflection is crucial to avoid the bias trap. Critical reflective thinking is essential in relation to each family, service user, or child to avoid falling into automatic thinking. Critical thinking is deliberate thinking. Critical thinking is disciplined thinking. It needs to happen before action so we can identify any potential for bias. Then, in action, so that we don’t seek out only the information to justify a predetermined decision. And finally after action to ensure our decisions are rooted in a solid rationale devoid of bias.
This article was written by George Bull and Stephen J Mordue
George has been a social worker for 10 years working mainly in child protection and Early Help. He has lectured with Jamie Scorer at New College Durham, University of Sunderland and University of Northumbria in solution focused practice.
Stephen J. Mordue Stephen is a lecturer in social work at the University of Sunderland, in the North East of England. He was a social work practitioner for 12 years working on an Older Persons team. His particular areas of interest are communication, how organisations function, and the application of the Mental Capacity Act and Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards. He is passionate about being organised, productivity and self care – ask him about diary management and spreadsheets!