Young man with laptop sits on floor

“Many problems in how we make decisions have been attributed to limitations in how we memorise and process information, and computers are often used to overcome these restrictions,” John Maule says. “But because many computer systems have been developed without a full understanding of how people actually think, computers can lead people to make bad decisions. (Courtesy: iStockphoto)

U. LEEDS (UK)—People who use computers to help them make good decisions are often unwittingly being led by technology into making bad ones.

What is needed is development of more sophisticated IT systems that are based on a better understanding of human psychology, says John Maule, professor for human decision making at Leeds University Business School.

Computers assume that people act logically, but limits in human memory and the amount of information people can process often leads to mental ‘short cuts’ to answer complex problems, adds Maule.

As a result, bias and error creep in. Further, the errors are compounded by a human tendency to look for information that confirms what we already think and ignore everything else.

“Decision making is a vital activity—it determines the actions that individuals and organisations take and how successful these are—but we still have much to learn about it.”

A key purpose of computers is to provide decision makers with extra information and this may simply be used to reassure themselves they are making the correct choice, when in fact they may be making the wrong one.

Maule’s findings are published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction.

“Many problems in how we make decisions have been attributed to limitations in how we memorise and process information, and computers are often used to overcome these restrictions,” Maule says.

“But because many computer systems have been developed without a full understanding of how people actually think, computers can lead people to make bad decisions.

“For example, if someone has a hunch about how they should take a particular decision or solve a problem, they tend to look for anything that confirms what they initially believe to be true.

“Computers provide us with so much more information and unless people are trained to do otherwise, they only focus on those aspects that are consistent with their initial views. This can make them even more confident about what they are doing when in fact it is wrong.

“A second problem is people use computers to analyse and evaluate large quantities of information. However, there are situations when it would have been better to follow gut reactions.

“Following your intuitions is much more difficult when you are sat in front of a computer! The trick is to know when and when not to use gut reactions—something that most decision makers are not taught.”

Individuals and organisations spend huge quantities of money on computer systems that are supposed to help them make better decisions and in some cases this is justified.

However, in order to prevent the problems caused by mental ‘short cuts’, a major re-think in how we use computers is needed, Maule says.

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