Forms of knowledge and the use of the representativeness heuristic in clinical inferencing tasks of community health nurses

Eileen Sjoberg O'Neill, University of Rhode Island


This survey study describes community health nurses' inferential strategies from the perspective of prospect theory, examining nurses' use of the cognitive heuristic, representativeness. Prospect theory assumes that people have limited cognitive capacity and therefore, rely on cognitive heuristics to reduce complex data to manageable proportions. An important question in nursing is how do nurses cope with uncertainty, complexity and a rapidly changing environment to extract data, process it and arrive at clinical judgments. One would assume that they must use simplifying strategies or heuristics to reduce information overload. Four types of the representativeness heuristic were examined along with the impact of knowledge attained primarily through formal education and experience on their use. Hypotheses of the study projected that experts and novices would use different types of the representativeness heuristic in clinical inferencing.^ To test the hypotheses, the Clinical Inference Questionnaire which included sixteen clinical situations relevant to community health nursing was developed. Demographic data including educational level and years of nursing experience was also assessed. The questionnaire was evaluated by content experts and pretested twice. A random sample of three hundred and seventy-five community health nurses currently practicing in Massachusetts were sent the questionnaire. Two hundred and fourteen (57.1%) usable questionnaires were returned.^ Data analyzed using log linear analyses and the chi square statistic indicated that there were associations between heuristics use and knowledge representation for the more complex types of representative thinking. Experienced nurses were more likely to make judgments based on similarity than novices ($p<.02$) and novices were more likely to use causal reasoning ($p<.05$) as predicted by the theory. Inferences requiring estimates based on the frequency of a health problem and those eliciting judgments of similarity to a single case did not show a relationship to nurse variables. Task and problem characteristics affected clinical judgment behavior particularly for problems requiring less complex reasoning skills. These findings have both theoretical and practical significance. They add an important dimension to describing the complex phenomenon of clinical judgment and have implications for further research, nursing practice and nursing education. ^

Subject Area

Psychology, Behavioral|Health Sciences, Nursing

Recommended Citation

Eileen Sjoberg O'Neill, "Forms of knowledge and the use of the representativeness heuristic in clinical inferencing tasks of community health nurses" (1992). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI9239603.