Book Review: The Anatomy of Judgement

The Anatomy of Judgement: An Investigation into the Processes of Perception and Reasoning

M.L.J. Abercrombie (1989)
New Edition Free Association Books

First published in 1960


Henri Bortoft in his book “The Wholeness of Nature” presents us with one of the most comprehensive critiques of the limitations of materialist, reductionist and mechanistic thinking in science. His book however is not an easy read, and is laden with the philosophy of phenomenology and hermeneutics, which could possible explain why it has been so ignored not just by the mainstream scientific community, but by the business community as well who could learn so much from this new and dynamic way of thinking. Abercrombie’s “The Anatomy of Judgement” covers much of the same ground as Bortoft, but in an entirely practical and grounded manner, demonstrating the practical uses of teaching medical and other students how to pay attention to the biases and assumptions in their current ways of observing, seeing, and inferring, enabling to make more accurate decisions and inferences in their work and studies. For this reason, although first published in 1960, Abercrombie’s research is still as valid today as it was when first published, and should be read by scientists and the business community alike.


The Anatomy of Judgement was first published in 1960, and summarises Jane Abercrombie’s research teaching students how to think scientifically and objectively, based on the then recent branches of study in visual perception and group psychotherapy, helping them to develop their observational skills in order be better able to obtain accurate information from specific situations. In this book she describes her ten year’s work with medical students, and how her unorthodox methods of teaching via free discussion groups led them to better understand the hidden assumptions and unconscious factors that influenced their decision making when analysing “radiographs” (x-rays) of patients.

Abercrombie’s background was zoology, and she had observed how when dissecting an animal, or looking into a microscope, university students would often not be able to distinguish between what was actually there and what they had been taught to expect “ought” to be there. Her hypothesis was simple, in that she expected that people would be able to make better judgements if they could be taught to pay attention to the process of observing and thinking, and become better aware of the factors that can influence our judgements. However, what is so interesting is that her book contains many extracts from conversations between her students, and these are extremely revealing in terms of the differences between students, their attitudes to the discussion groups, and just how uncomfortable many of them were.

Abercrombie uses the word “schemata” which she defines as the “tools which help us see, evaluate and respond” (p28). As well as referring to Porter’s famous picture puzzle “The Hidden Man” which a man is hidden using black and white shapes in the same way Bortoft’s giraffe was created, she also refers to many other well known illusions to demonstrate the same point as Bortoft, that “the relation between the inner and outer worlds – in this case, between the picture and what we see – is a complex one” (p27).

Abercrombie refers to the famous card experiments of Bruner and Postman, whereby participants in the trials saw anonalous cards such as a red six of clubs as either purple or brown, due to their strong past experience of cards and what they ought to be. These studies also demonstrated that participants took a shorter time to identify normal cards as opposed to abnormal ones. This is an example of schemata leading to us seeing phenomena incorrectly. The effect is not limited to the perception of shape and colour, but words as well.

While Abercrombie cites many well known optical illusions, it is interesting to note her observations of how certain illusions can fail. A great example is that of the “distorted room” created by Adelbert Ames. When viewed through a hole in a wall some distance from the room, it looks perfectly normal, and yet if two people stand at opposite sides, they appear dramatically different sizes. Maria and I had the opportunity to play in an Ames room in an art gallery in São Paulo, as did many other visitors to their great hilarity. Abercrombie notes how one woman saw all people as distorted apart from her own husband, that research shows that this is true for many newly wedded couples. People therefore can be seen to interpret their sensory stimulus not only on part experiences but on present and future needs.

The second part of Abercrombie’s book describes how her course of free group discussions facilitated by her helped medical students uncover their previously unrecognised assumptions or schematas, by testing them against those of their colleagues. These were all students aged between eighteen and twenty years old, and were at that point in their lives where they were being forced to move out of their educational comfort zones from school where the teacher was perceived as the authority who could impart objective and value-free facts to the students. Abercrombie noted how all of the students had a “nineteenth century” schemata of physics and the outside world, one of an independently existing world where facts could simply be observed in a “scientific” manner. As it becomes clear when reading the transcripts from the discussions, many students felt uncomfortable to the point of fear having to face the fact that their visual perceptions were so loaded with subjective aspects. These fears would more often than not translate into direct and explicit hostility towards Abercrombie.

The actual discussions consisted of the following tasks

  • Observe the differences between the radiographs of two hands (one being that of a 7 year old and the other that of a “normal” adult.
  • Discuss the meaning of the word “normal”
  • Discuss the process of classification and categorisation in science.
  • Evaluating evidence

When examining the difference between the two hands, students would often go beyond that which they could “see” and would describe inferences, an inference being a conclusion that can not be derived simply with the evidence available in the x-rays. Some students expressed these as “facts”, something undeniably true, whereas others would consciously describe their inference as a conclusion. Just as we saw with the illustration of the Three Triangles, students selected information from the x-rays and ignored that information which did not fit the ordained pattern expected, an example being the counting of the number of bones, where the actual images are ambiguous and bones visually distinct from each other can not actually be seen. Students were therefore not able to keep alternative hypotheses open while they observed.

A hand x-ray (

Abercrombie’s second task she set students was to read a short text by a technical author on anatomy, and write down their own interpretations of what the author meant by the word “normal”. This seemingly simple task showed just how much confusion there was amongst students in their understanding of this deceptively simple term. Abercrombie identified six different uses of the term ranging from informal definitions to statistical ones. It was not just the students who discovered confusion over this term, as Abercrombie noted the same confusions in biological scientific texts published by expert authors, not just around the word “normal” but many others as well, such as “primitive”, “fundamental”, “environmental” and “inherited”.

An interesting example is also provided, whereby a doctor who is struggling to diagnose a patient asks him if his diet has been normal. The patient replies yes, but some days later the doctor learns that the patient for three years has only been eating bread, margarine and treacle, which then allows his to properly diagnose the patient as suffering from scurvy, which is a result of a deficiency in vitamin C. Here the doctor used the term normal to indicate suitability of diet, but the patient was using the term to indicate that there had been no change recently. While issues such as this can be overcome by being aware of the ambiguity of terms, other confusions can still remain due to the fact that the meanings of words such as “normal” can overlap.

It is clear that many of the students found the format of free discussion far more useful in helping them realise that the receipt of information involves the same kind of processes of selection and interpretation as does the receipt of information from a visual pattern, and at the end of the course they were able to use language with greater effectiveness. In designing the free discussion groups the way she did, her objective can be seen as not imparting new knowledge or “packets of facts”, but to facilitate change in the students by helping them to reassess and rearrange what was already in their minds. This process though turned out to not be only an intellectual exercise. It is clear why Ambercrombie also looked to group psychotherapeutic methodologies, since many students reacted extremely negatively emotionally when their deep held convictions were challenged.

The task set for the students prior to them discussing classifying was to write a short essay on their thoughts on this subject. What was interesting here was that while most students recognised the man-made arbitrary nature of most systems of classification, many of them also expressed that there had to be an “absolute” system of classification, one which “does not depend on human convenience, which exists apart from man’s conceptions, and is perfect, permanent and unchanging” (p111).

Students expressed this in the following manner:

“…in certain fields at any rate, there is a fundamental classification which is…which always has existed and doesn’t really depend on how you split it up, it’s not purely a man-made thing”.

“I think that in chemistry there is a fundamental order of things and…perhaps in biology one might be discovered.”

“I do insist that there must be an absolute classification, which is absolutely invariable, and is a product of the order of things.”

Abercrombie noted that these opinions were the “nineteenth century view” where the emphasis in science is discovering the external and objective nature which is distinct from our own subjective world of illusions, and where universal laws of nature are deductible by reason. These views on how the world “must” be fixed and eternally stable appeared to affect strongly the ways in which students received information from their course, and as we shall see, how they would react emotionally.

The final task Abercrombie discusses was how students would evaluate a written report from an experiment published in an authoritative and well-regarded scientific journal. The nature of bias has been studied in depth, and aesthetic, ethical, religious and political opinions can all affect our judgements. But the students were surprised to discover that although they considered themselves to be “scientists” with the ability to think logically and rationally, this was not the case with more subtle factors also affecting their assessments. Although they had all been taught the correct protocols and methodologies for experiments, such as standardising conditions, changing one factor at a time etc, students made varying assessments of the author’s claims. For example some students were affected by the status of the author, even though the report was vague and the experimental design inadequate. Many students were disturbed by the fact that their scientific judgement could be swayed so much by whether or not they trusted people in life. In everyday life we are continually evaluating evidence, and we too may not be aware of making any judgements either.

In discussing the effectiveness of her course of free discussions compared to the more usual teaching methods by lecture, Abercrombie felt that they had been of benefit in teaching students to understand the key differences between description and inference, something they had not been able to understand when comparing and describing the hand x-rays. Inferences of course are important, as it is inferences more so then descriptions that can lead to action, for example a doctor reaching a conclusion with a diagnosis based on what he observes in a patient. Abercrombie also saw a reduction in the number of false inferences in her students, due to the students being more critical of the evidence before them. But as has already been noted, the process of change was not an easy one for many students, despite them still being young students unlike much older professors who can often appear to be so wedded to their theories and hypotheses.

The greatest challenge students faced was the the changed view of the external world and their relationship to it. In particular, the course showed them just how limited the implicit assumptions of a nineteenth century world view were, and also the assumption that the student was a passive receiver of information from the outside world through his or her senses (p130). Some examples of the students’ revelations were:

“It’s as though my world has been cracked open”

“But you can’t have all the world a jelly”

“I daren’t walk downstairs in case the stairs are not there”

Some became frightened at losing the comfort of a fixed and eternal world existing independently of the vagaries of human needs, and this could potentially be due to the fact that the students were now seeing changes in themselves.:

“I can’t trust myself now, let alone anyone else.”

When some students did change their opinions, they were sometimes jeered. This is an interesting emotional reaction, since science is supposed to be free of value judgements. How can scientific knowledge advance, when changes of opinion are not approved of?

Other sources of hostility appeared to come from deep held schemata on one’s own position in society, demonstrated in this student’s views on classification, which led to a long discussion by the other students in his group who attempted to correct his confusions:

“Classification brings order into beautiful chaos, the state where actions and statements are not compared and unduly criticised. Classification is the major enemy of all individualistic tendencies but we, unfortunately, live in a civilisation where individuals are sacrificed for the common good.”

The design of the course, with the teacher there to facilitate discussion rather than to impart knowledge, demonstrated to the students their own personal involvement with their perceptions of the external world. A significant outcome was that their beliefs in the stability and independence of the external world and their confidence in their ability to secure reliable information about it were shaken. Deep held beliefs in authority were also questioned. However, Abercrombie’s task was to lead the students to relinquishing their security of thinking in well-defined channels, and to find recognition based on “ambiguity, uncertainty and open choice” (p140).

So in summary, although “The Anatomy of Judgement” was first published in 1960, it remains as relevant today as it did fifty years ago, and given that it can be bought second hand on Amazon for just a few pence, is a study well worth reading, with the conclusions not just relevant to science, but the teaching of business executives and leaders, and anyone interested in broadening and improving their decision-making, and in particularly, group decision making abilities.

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