A mixed-methods exploration of cognitive dispositions to respond and clinical reasoning errors with multiple choice questions

Luke T. Surry*, Dario Torre, Robert L. Trowbridge, Steven J. Durning

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Background: Cognitive dispositions to respond (i.e., cognitive biases and heuristics) are well-established clinical reasoning phenomena. While thought by many to be error-prone, some scholars contest that these cognitive dispositions to respond are pragmatic solutions for reasoning through clinical complexity that are associated with errors largely due to hindsight bias and flawed experimental design. The purpose of this study was to prospectively identify cognitive dispositions to respond occurring during clinical reasoning to determine whether they are actually associated with increased odds of an incorrect answer (i.e., error). Methods: Using the cognitive disposition to respond framework, this mixed-methods study applied a constant comparative qualitative thematic analysis to transcripts of think alouds performed during completion of clinical-vignette multiple-choice questions. The number and type of cognitive dispositions to respond associated with both correct and incorrect answers were identified. Participants included medical students, residents, and attending physicians recruited using maximum variation strategies. Data were analyzed using generalized estimating equations binary logistic model for repeated, within-subjects measures. Results: Among 14 participants, there were 3 cognitive disposition to respond categories - Cognitive Bias, Flaws in Conceptual Understanding, and Other Vulnerabilities - with 13 themes identified from the think aloud transcripts. The odds of error increased to a statistically significant degree with a greater per-item number of distinct Cognitive Bias themes (OR = 1.729, 95% CI [1.226, 2.437], p = 0.002) and Other Vulnerabilities themes (OR = 2.014, 95% CI [1.280, 2.941], p < 0.001), but not with Flaws in Conceptual Understanding themes (OR = 1.617, 95% CI [0.961, 2.720], p = 0.070). Conclusion: This study supports the theoretical understanding of cognitive dispositions to respond as phenomena associated with errors in a new prospective manner. With further research, these findings may inform teaching, learning, and assessment of clinical reasoning toward a reduction in patient harm due to clinical reasoning errors.

Original languageEnglish
Article number277
JournalBMC Medical Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - 23 Nov 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Clinical reasoning
  • Cognitive disposition to respond (CDR)
  • Medical decision making
  • Medical errors
  • Reasoning errors


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