Cognitive biases associated with medical decisions: a systematic review

BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. 2016 Nov 3;16(1):138. doi: 10.1186/s12911-016-0377-1.


Background: Cognitive biases and personality traits (aversion to risk or ambiguity) may lead to diagnostic inaccuracies and medical errors resulting in mismanagement or inadequate utilization of resources. We conducted a systematic review with four objectives: 1) to identify the most common cognitive biases, 2) to evaluate the influence of cognitive biases on diagnostic accuracy or management errors, 3) to determine their impact on patient outcomes, and 4) to identify literature gaps.

Methods: We searched MEDLINE and the Cochrane Library databases for relevant articles on cognitive biases from 1980 to May 2015. We included studies conducted in physicians that evaluated at least one cognitive factor using case-vignettes or real scenarios and reported an associated outcome written in English. Data quality was assessed by the Newcastle-Ottawa scale. Among 114 publications, 20 studies comprising 6810 physicians met the inclusion criteria. Nineteen cognitive biases were identified.

Results: All studies found at least one cognitive bias or personality trait to affect physicians. Overconfidence, lower tolerance to risk, the anchoring effect, and information and availability biases were associated with diagnostic inaccuracies in 36.5 to 77 % of case-scenarios. Five out of seven (71.4 %) studies showed an association between cognitive biases and therapeutic or management errors. Of two (10 %) studies evaluating the impact of cognitive biases or personality traits on patient outcomes, only one showed that higher tolerance to ambiguity was associated with increased medical complications (9.7 % vs 6.5 %; p = .004). Most studies (60 %) targeted cognitive biases in diagnostic tasks, fewer focused on treatment or management (35 %) and on prognosis (10 %). Literature gaps include potentially relevant biases (e.g. aggregate bias, feedback sanction, hindsight bias) not investigated in the included studies. Moreover, only five (25 %) studies used clinical guidelines as the framework to determine diagnostic or treatment errors. Most studies (n = 12, 60 %) were classified as low quality.

Conclusions: Overconfidence, the anchoring effect, information and availability bias, and tolerance to risk may be associated with diagnostic inaccuracies or suboptimal management. More comprehensive studies are needed to determine the prevalence of cognitive biases and personality traits and their potential impact on physicians' decisions, medical errors, and patient outcomes.

Keywords: Case-scenarios; Cognition; Cognitive bias; Decision making; Personality traits; Physicians; Systematic review.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Decision-Making*
  • Humans
  • Personality*
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Thinking*