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01.12.2012 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2012 Open Access

BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 1/2012

Dual processing model of medical decision-making

BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making > Ausgabe 1/2012
Benjamin Djulbegovic, Iztok Hozo, Jason Beckstead, Athanasios Tsalatsanis, Stephen G Pauker
Wichtige Hinweise

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (doi:10.​1186/​1472-6947-12-94) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors' contributions

BD had an idea for the study. BD & IH jointly developed the model. IH solved the model. BD and IH performed the analyses. JB and AT performed additional analyses. SGP analyzed the performance of dual processing model and provided an additional intellectual input. BD wrote the first draft. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.



Dual processing theory of human cognition postulates that reasoning and decision-making can be described as a function of both an intuitive, experiential, affective system (system I) and/or an analytical, deliberative (system II) processing system. To date no formal descriptive model of medical decision-making based on dual processing theory has been developed. Here we postulate such a model and apply it to a common clinical situation: whether treatment should be administered to the patient who may or may not have a disease.


We developed a mathematical model in which we linked a recently proposed descriptive psychological model of cognition with the threshold model of medical decision-making and show how this approach can be used to better understand decision-making at the bedside and explain the widespread variation in treatments observed in clinical practice.


We show that physician’s beliefs about whether to treat at higher (lower) probability levels compared to the prescriptive therapeutic thresholds obtained via system II processing is moderated by system I and the ratio of benefit and harms as evaluated by both system I and II. Under some conditions, the system I decision maker’s threshold may dramatically drop below the expected utility threshold derived by system II. This can explain the overtreatment often seen in the contemporary practice. The opposite can also occur as in the situations where empirical evidence is considered unreliable, or when cognitive processes of decision-makers are biased through recent experience: the threshold will increase relative to the normative threshold value derived via system II using expected utility threshold. This inclination for the higher diagnostic certainty may, in turn, explain undertreatment that is also documented in the current medical practice.


We have developed the first dual processing model of medical decision-making that has potential to enrich the current medical decision-making field, which is still to the large extent dominated by expected utility theory. The model also provides a platform for reconciling two groups of competing dual processing theories (parallel competitive with default-interventionalist theories).
Additional file 1:Appendix: Derivation of DSM-M equation.(DOC 826 KB)
Additional file 2:Table S1. Evaluation of Behavior of Dual Processing Model for Medical Decision-Making (DSM -M). Threshold probability as a function of individual risk perception. (DOCX 102 KB)
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