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"What you look for is what you Find." Are cognitive biases undermining the effectiveness of your workplace investigations?

How often do our preconceptions shape the outcomes of our workplace investigations?

Recognised as an essential tool for improving workplace safety and addressing workplace issues, incident investigations tackle everything from safety incidents, including near misses and employee complaints, to breaches of company standards. While this article focuses predominately on safety investigations, the insights offered are universally applicable, aiming to enhance the effectiveness of any investigative process.

Introduction to the Human-Centred Investigations® Series

This first article in the Human-Centred Investigations® series highlights a crucial yet often overlooked aspect of workplace investigations: the influence of cognitive biases and group dynamics. These subconscious mental shortcuts, which range from groupthink to various heuristic biases, can significantly impact the accuracy and effectiveness of investigations. Often, there is a lack of recognition of how our understanding of the human brain affects those involved in the incident and the integrity of our investigative processes.

In this article, we explore how cognitive biases and group dynamics, often operating beneath our conscious awareness, can inadvertently compromise the quality of investigations. This exploration is backed by decades of firsthand experience in the field and extensive study in neuroscience, psychology, and human behaviour. The aim is to shed light on these biases, understand their influence on investigations, and discuss strategies to mitigate their impact, thereby enhancing the objectivity and effectiveness of our investigative processes.

In our next article, we will explore the reliability of witness evidence, examining how factors such as perception, memory, and recall can influence it.

Investigations are crucial for understanding incidents and preventing their recurrence. But how effective are our investigative processes? Do they genuinely uncover the actual root causes and contributory factors, or are we simply finding the answers we expect?

I have investigated incidents of varying natures and across many jurisdictions for over 30 years. My journey has spanned from policing and conducting investigations concerning breaches of the Crimes Act and Road Transport Legislation to an Inspector with the WHS Regulator investigating breaches of WHS legislation, to Insurance (including CTP/public liability), fraud and internal workplace safety, and human resources investigations.

In this diverse journey, I've encountered it all: probable cause, beyond a reasonable doubt, the balance of probabilities, and the intricate rules of evidence. My work has been rigorously examined in courts, enduring scrutiny and cross-examination by some of Australia's top lawyers, barristers, and KCs (formerly QCs). The outcomes of my investigations have been far-reaching, influencing life-altering decisions such as imprisonment, loss of employment, and significant penalties for organisational.

Why share this background? Not to boast but to emphasise that even with decades of investigation experience across various fields, we are continually learning. More importantly, we must acknowledge that investigations are inherently complex, and our training often lacks the necessary information and tools for conducting quality, ethical, and effective incident investigations. We must also acknowledge that relying solely on a specific methodology or tool alone does not guarantee a quality investigation. To truly enhance the quality and effectiveness of our work, a fundamental understanding of how the human brain operates is essential.

The brain, the most complex organ in the human body, is the control centre for our thoughts, actions, and behaviours. Its primary function is to keep us alive, yet it has limitations. As investigators, it is crucial to understand these limitations in terms of those involved in our investigations and how they impact our investigative approach.

Let's start with the why.

Taking a cue from Simon Sinek's approach. Understanding why this article deserves your attention and, more importantly, why considering cognitive bias in investigations is crucial.

Cognitive biases lead to more than just incorrect conclusions; their impact can be serious, sometimes even devastating. In policing, for example, these biases can result in wrongful incarcerations. In the workplace, the repercussions are equally significant: unfair, unjust and wrongful punishment of employees, severe injuries or fatalities from misidentified root causes and contributory factors, increased workplace conflict, reduced morale, and more.

These biases have also been the catalyst for many workers' compensation stress claims and can inadvertently cause psychological injuries. In the most extreme cases, individuals have taken their own lives after being unjustly blamed for incidents. These examples highlight the critical need for investigators to understand the psychological foundations of their work to conduct thorough and objective investigations.

Regrettably, despite its critical importance, this knowledge is seldom included in standard investigation training and is frequently overlooked in the investigative process. This gap in training is why we place a significant emphasis on this aspect in our Human-Centred Investigation® training.

 "Our decisions and actions are influenced by the information we pay attention to" (Cleveland Clinic, 2023).

Understanding Cognitive Biases

It is widely acknowledged and accepted that, as human beings, we are all biased (Tversky & Kahneman, 1674), and whilst the exact number of biases varies across research studies, it is estimated that there are over 180 biases that interfere with how we process data, think critically and perceive reality.

Cognitive biases are an intrinsic part of how we process information. They originate from our brain's attempt to simplify and interpret the large amount of information it receives daily. These biases represent systematic errors in our thinking, influencing our perception of the world, how we interpret information and our decisions. Often, these biases stem from the social norms, personal experiences, and assumptions developed over our lifetimes, leading us to interpret information through the lens of our own beliefs and experiences, which might not always reflect the actual situation.

Our memory of events and the limitations of our attention span shape our biases. Our brains are wired to take shortcuts based on previous experiences, causing us to subconsciously be selective about what we focus on. In situations resembling past experiences, we may respond like we have before without considering other possibilities. Additionally, our emotions and the social pressures we face play a significant role in the development and influence of cognitive biases.

Decoding Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases are psychological tendencies that can lead to incorrect conclusions. In incident investigations, where objective analysis is critical, these biases can significantly impact the process. Common biases include confirmation bias, which drives individuals to favour information that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs, and hindsight bias, which makes events appear predictable in retrospect, even when they were not.

These biases can influence every stage of an incident investigation, from gathering evidence at the scene to interviews with injured parties, witnesses, and others to analysing data and drawing conclusions. Investigators might overlook crucial information, misinterpret facts, or reach flawed conclusions due to these biases. For instance, an investigator with confirmation bias may focus solely on evidence supporting their initial hypothesis, ignoring contradictory information. This selective attention can lead to a distorted and incomplete picture of the incident.

While there are numerous biases, they are generally categorised into two types: unconscious (implicit) and conscious (explicit) biases:

Unconscious Bias (Implicit Bias): Unconscious biases are automatic, deeply ingrained, and often invisible assumptions about social and identity groups. They are not accessible through introspection and are triggered by our environment. Examples include biases related to gender, race, or age, where one might unknowingly favour a group over others. These biases originate from our brain's tendency to categorise and simplify our social world.

Conscious Bias (Explicit Bias): Conscious biases are known prejudices based on personal beliefs or societal stereotypes. Individuals are aware of these biases and can inform or rationalise behaviour and decision-making. These biases develop through direct experiences or sociocultural conditioning. Examples include explicit preferences in hiring practices or holding negative stereotypes about certain racial or ethnic groups.

Understanding both types of biases is vital in fields like incident investigation, human resources, or any area involving decision-making that affects others. Recognising and addressing these biases, especially unconscious ones, is crucial for ensuring fair and objective decision-making. 

Exploring Key Cognitive Biases related to incident investigation.

As we delve into specific cognitive biases relevant to incident investigations, we must recognise that even highly trained investigators are susceptible to these biases. These biases can stem from conscious and subconscious thought processes, influencing investigations from initial information collection to the outcomes and potentially hindering organisational learning.

  • Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE): Identified by Nisbett, Caputo, Legant, & Marecek (1973), this bias involves investigators making judgments based on character evidence rather than considering external situational factors. Investigators might attribute a person's behaviour to their personality traits, overlooking external circumstances that influenced their actions during the incident.

  • Hindsight Bias: This bias leads investigators to believe that an incident could have been easily avoided if certain actions had been taken. It often results in the expectation that individuals should have anticipated the event, leading investigators to focus on fault-finding in individuals while ignoring a range of other contributory factors.

  • Confirmation Bias: As described by Lundberg, Rollenhagen, and Hollnagel (2009) and noted by Dr. Prewitt, this bias involves investigators seeking information that aligns with their existing beliefs. This tendency can result in focusing only on evidence that supports preconceived notions about the incident, leading to 'causal factors' that confirm their initial beliefs.

  • Experience Bias: Investigators often rely heavily on their previous experience, making judgments based predominantly on what they have previously encountered. This bias can lead to prematurely stopping the search for information when they believe they have found enough evidence to support their decision, potentially overlooking other relevant factors.

  • Anchoring Bias: Investigators give disproportionate weight to the first piece of information they receive. This initial 'anchor' can unduly influence their entire analysis, potentially leading to skewed conclusions if the initial information is inaccurate or incomplete.

  • False Consensus Effect: This bias occurs when individuals overestimate the extent to which their opinions or behaviours are shared by others, leading to a skewed understanding of the incident if not checked against objective evidence.

  • Groupthink: Characterised by a group's desire for harmony or conformity. Groupthink can result in irrational or dysfunctional decision-making, potentially leading to premature consensus and overlooking critical evidence or alternative explanations in investigations.

  • Heuristics: These mental shortcuts simplify decision-making but can lead to systematic errors or biases. For example, the 'availability heuristic' might lead investigators to overvalue easily accessible or recent information, potentially overlooking less obvious but more relevant evidence.

  • Misinformation Effect: This happens when an individual's recollection of an event becomes less accurate due to post-event information, including what they hear or read about the event afterwards and impacts the reliability of their statements.

  • Halo Effect: An overall impression of a person, company or situation (good or bad) can disproportionately influence specific evaluations, potentially leading to biased judgments in investigations. For example, with the Halo effect, investigators may use their overall impression of someone when judging their character.

  • Self-Serving Bias: Investigators may attribute positive outcomes to their abilities and adverse outcomes to external factors, affecting their ability to assess their investigation methods objectively.

  • Availability Bias: This involves basing judgments on readily available memory data rather than a comprehensive review of all relevant information, potentially distorting incident perception.

This is just a snapshot of some fundamental biases that play a critical role in how investigators process information, draw conclusions, and ultimately affect the outcomes of their investigations. Recognising and mitigating these biases is essential for conducting thorough, objective, and effective investigations.

How these manifest in Incident Investigations

Biases can manifest in numerous ways during the course of incident investigations. The following examples illustrate some of the common manifestations. 

Please note: this list is not exhaustive but is intended to provide a snapshot of how biases can influence various aspects of the investigative process.

Initial Scene Examination and Evaluation:

  • Confirmation Bias and Anchoring Bias: Investigators might initially focus on elements that confirm their preconceived notions or hypotheses about the incident. The first observations or pieces of information can disproportionately shape the investigation's direction, potentially leading to oversight of other critical evidence.

  • Availability Bias: Recent or vivid memories of similar incidents may unduly influence how investigators perceive the scene, potentially leading to incorrect assumptions or overlooked details.

Interviewing Witnesses and Those Involved:

  • Fundamental Attribution Error: Investigators might attribute behaviours or actions to personal traits rather than considering external factors or situational influences when interviewing witnesses or individuals involved.

  • Hindsight Bias: There might be a tendency to believe that witnesses or involved parties should have anticipated the event, leading to biased questioning or interpretation of their statements.

  • Misinformation Effect: Witnesses' recollections can be influenced by information they have heard or read about the incident after the fact, affecting the accuracy of their statements.

Building Rapport and Interviewing Techniques:

  • Halo Effect and Self-Serving Bias: An investigator's overall impression of a person can influence their evaluation, leading to biased questioning or interpretation of responses. Additionally, investigators might attribute successful interviews to their skills, while failures or inconsistencies might be attributed to external factors.

  • Groupthink: In team-based investigations, the investigative team's desire for harmony or consensus can lead to premature conclusions or overlooking alternative explanations.

  • False Consensus Effect: Investigators might assume that their beliefs or opinions about the incident are more widely shared than they are, influencing the direction and nature of interviews.

Overall Investigative Process:

  • Experience Bias: Reliance on past experiences can lead investigators to prematurely conclude investigations or overlook novel aspects of the current incident.

  • Heuristics: Using mental shortcuts can expedite the investigation process but at the risk of introducing systematic errors or biases.

In each stage, being aware of and actively working to mitigate these cognitive biases can significantly enhance the thoroughness, objectivity, and effectiveness of incident investigations. Training investigators to recognise these biases and employing diverse perspectives and methodologies can help reduce their impact.

Mitigating Cognitive Biases in Investigations - A Human-Centred Approach

Understanding and mitigating cognitive biases, especially unconscious ones, is a complex but crucial aspect of incident investigations. Acknowledging our inherent biases as humans is the first step. Here are some practical tips to help start mitigating these biases:

  • Awareness: The key to addressing cognitive biases lies in constant awareness and deliberate effort. Training investigators to recognise and actively counteract these biases is fundamental. Regular workshops and training sessions can be instrumental in developing this awareness.

  • Fostering a Culture of Curiosity and Open Inquiry: Cultivating a culture that encourages open inquiry is essential. Investigators should be trained to approach each case with curiosity and a willingness to challenge their pre-existing assumptions. This mindset is vital for uncovering hidden biases and enhancing the objectivity and thoroughness of investigations.

  • Building Rapport and Demonstrating Empathy: Effective communication, including building rapport and demonstrating empathy, is critical in investigative contexts and can help mitigate investigator biases. It allows investigators to connect with witnesses and involved parties on a deeper level, facilitating more accurate and comprehensive information gathering. Understanding emotional intelligence and its role in interactions can significantly reduce the risk of biases clouding judgment.

  • Diverse Investigations Teams: Implementing diverse, multidisciplinary teams in the investigative process can significantly counter individual biases. Diverse perspectives lead to a more comprehensive and objective understanding of incidents, fostering fairer and more accurate conclusions.

  • Utilising Self-Assessment Tools: Tools such as the Harvard Implicit Association Test can be invaluable in helping investigators recognise their biases. Understanding these biases is a critical step in becoming more effective in their roles. Awareness of one's biases enables conscious efforts to mitigate them during investigations.

  • The Role of Continuous Learning: Ongoing learning and development are vital in combating cognitive biases. Encouraging investigators to stay informed about the latest cognitive psychology research and consistently reflect on and refine their investigative methods can significantly reduce bias.

By integrating these strategies, investigators can develop a more balanced, objective approach to incident investigations, leading to more accurate and reliable outcomes.

Final Thoughts

The impact of cognitive biases on incident investigations is profound. Acknowledging and addressing these subtle yet powerful influences is essential for conducting comprehensive, objective, and effective human-centred inquiries. This approach is critical to identifying the actual root causes of incidents, significantly enhancing workplace safety and preventing future occurrences.

Our Human-Centred Investigation® training is not another investigation methodology or another incident analysis tool. It is designed to complement any existing methodology or investigation process used in your organisation by focusing on understanding how the human brain works and leveraging this knowledge to improve the quality and effectiveness of your investigations.

If you want to learn more about our Human-Centred Investigation training and how it can enhance your investigative skills, please get in touch with our team at

Remember: As we continue our series on Human-Centred Investigations®, our next article will delve into the reliability of witness evidence. We will explore how perception, memory, and cognitive biases influence witness accounts, highlighting the importance of a human-centred approach in investigations.

Recommended Further Reading

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