Blog | Monday, May 22, 2017

A personality trait that may help us minimize diagnostic errors

I found this article fascinating, “The Surprising Personality Trait That Massively Improves Decision-Making, According to Science.” The trait is called intellectual humility!

From the paper: “In everyday language, it means the willingness to accept that you might be wrong and to not get defensive when arguments or information that's unfavorable to your position comes to light.”

In medicine, we often have to assume a diagnosis when a patient enters the hospital. We often assume a diagnosis in outpatient settings. In both cases, we then should look for confirmatory evidence to either support our assumption or counter our assumption. The supporting data help us solidify our diagnosis, but too often we minimize evidence against our initial assumption. There are many heuristics possibility at work here – the mostly commonly cited are premature closure or the anchoring heuristic.

Intellectual humility protects us against these heuristics: “This is not to say that no one has trumpeted the importance of intellectual humility. On the HBR blogs, career coach Mark Bonche recently wrote about how fast learning requires a willingness to admit error, and various business gurus and VCs have long argued that the best kind of thinker is one with ‘strong opinions weakly held.’”

Final advice from the paper's author:

“Some leaders have long understood the importance of “intellectual humility” then, but it's clear from both the current political climate and plenty of business missteps that not everyone has internalized the value of incorporating a whole lot of humility into your decision making. For those folks, this study might serve as a healthy reminder that you can't learn if you can't admit that you might be wrong.”

Unfortunately, we physicians sometimes lack intellectual humility. Perhaps just understanding its importance will help us gain this important trait.

db is the nickname for Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP. db stands both for Dr. Bob and da boss. He is an academic general internist at the University of Alabama School of Medicine, and is the Regional Associate Dean for the Huntsville Regional Medical Campus of UASOM. He still makes inpatient rounds over 100 days each year. This post originally appeared at his blog, db's Medical Rants.