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New research shows the potential for improving social work decision-making

21 January 2020

Adults sat in a circle having a group discussion

A pilot project involving almost 300 social workers found that some established approaches used to improve forecasting in other fields may make a positive difference for social workers too.

Research conducted by the What Works for Children’s Social Care, in association with the Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre (CASCADE) at Cardiff University, revealed that a brief online cognitive debiasing intervention showed signs of potential.

During the study, registered social workers in England were asked to read short case studies based on real referrals and estimate what might happen next. These forecasts included the likelihood of particular behaviours by the parents, as well as social care outcomes.

After completing two case studies, the social workers were randomly assigned to take part in one of three exercises – confidence calibration, cognitive debiasing, and growth mindset with feedback. Similar exercises have been shown in previous studies to improve people’s ability to make forecasts in a number of areas, including politics, economics and finance.

After participating in one of the three exercises, the social workers were then asked to look at two more cases. Those who completed the exercise in cognitive debiasing were found to have increased accuracy in their forecasting, improving from a score of 25th best out of 100 to 10th best.

The findings suggest that this quick, low-cost and easy to administer intervention may help social workers avoid some of the negative effects of confirmation bias and improve their decision-making skills.

The other two interventions tested, confidence calibration and feedback, were found to have no effect on forecasting accuracy.

Additional analysis found that younger participants made more accurate forecasts, with those aged 25-34 being the most accurate, followed by those aged 18-24.

Future research will further develop the exercises and test them in field settings.

Michael Sanders, Executive Director of What Works for Children’s Social Care, said: “Although this is very early research, we’re hopeful that these findings can drive new research into social worker decision making and how we can help train and support social workers to make the forecasts and decisions that make up a lot of their job.”

Dr David Wilkins, Senior Lecturer in Social Work At Cardiff University, said: “Making good decisions is a critical and one of the toughest aspects of being a social worker. Even marginal gains in this area could have profound benefits. There’s a lot more to do, but the aim is to help social workers use their best judgement, to safely reduce the need for social work assessments and interventions, saving time and reducing the burden on families as well as workers”

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