Dual processing and diagnostic errors

Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract. 2009 Sep:14 Suppl 1:37-49. doi: 10.1007/s10459-009-9179-x. Epub 2009 Aug 11.


In this paper, I review evidence from two theories in psychology relevant to diagnosis and diagnostic errors. "Dual Process" theories of thinking, frequently mentioned with respect to diagnostic error, propose that categorization decisions can be made with either a fast, unconscious, contextual process called System 1 or a slow, analytical, conscious, and conceptual process, called System 2. Exemplar theories of categorization propose that many category decisions in everyday life are made by unconscious matching to a particular example in memory, and these remain available and retrievable individually. I then review studies of clinical reasoning based on these theories, and show that the two processes are equally effective; System 1, despite its reliance in idiosyncratic, individual experience, is no more prone to cognitive bias or diagnostic error than System 2. Further, I review evidence that instructions directed at encouraging the clinician to explicitly use both strategies can lead to consistent reduction in error rates.

MeSH terms

  • Cognition
  • Decision Making*
  • Diagnostic Errors / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Judgment*
  • Memory
  • Models, Theoretical