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Child Abuse Negl. 1999 Aug;23(8):745-58.

Common errors of reasoning in child protection work.

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Department of Social Policy and Administration, London School of Economics, England.



Repeated public inquiries into child abuse tragedies in Britain demonstrate the level of public concern about the services designed to protect children. These inquiries identify faults in professionals' practice but the similarities in their findings indicate that they are having insufficient impact on improving practice. This study is based on the hypothesis that the recurrent errors may be explicable as examples of the typical errors of human reasoning identified by psychological research.


The sample comprised all child abuse inquiry reports published in Britain between 1973 and 1994 (45 in total). Using a content analysis and a framework derived from psychological research on reasoning, a study was made of the reasoning of the professionals involved and the findings of the inquiries.


It was found that professionals based assessments of risk on a narrow range of evidence. It was biased towards the information readily available to them, overlooking significant data known to other professionals. The range was also biased towards the more memorable data, that is, towards evidence that was vivid, concrete, arousing emotion and either the first or last information received. The evidence was also often faulty, due, in the main, to biased or dishonest reporting or errors in communication. A critical attitude to evidence was found to correlate with whether or not the new information supported the existing view of the family. A major problem was that professionals were slow to revise their judgements despite a mounting body of evidence against them.


Errors in professional reasoning in child protection work are not random but predictable on the basis of research on how people intuitively simplify reasoning processes in making complex judgements. These errors can be reduced if people are aware of them and strive consciously to avoid them. Aids to reasoning need to be developed that recognize the central role of intuitive reasoning but offer methods for checking intuitive judgements more rigorously and systematically.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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