Field of Science

Cognitive biases in drug discovery, part 2: Anchoring, availability and representativeness

In the last post, I talked about how cognitive biases would be especially prevalent in drug discovery and development because of the complex, information-poor, tightly time-bound and financially-incentivized nature of the field. I talked about confirmation bias which riddles almost all human activity and which can manifest itself in drug discovery in the form of highlighting positive data for one’s favorite belief, metric or technique and rejecting negative data that does not agree with this belief. 

In this post, I will mention a few more important cognitive biases. All of them are classic examples of getting carried away by limited patches of data and ignoring important information; often information on much larger samples. It’s worth noting that not all of them are equally important; a bias that’s more applicable in other parts of life may be less applicable in drug discovery, and vice versa. It’s also interesting to see that a given case may present more than one bias; because the human mind operates in multiple modes, biases often overlap. In the next post we will look at a few more biases related to statistics and comparisons.

Anchoring: Anchoring is the tendency to rely too much on one piece of information or trait, especially if it appears first. In some sense it’s a ubiquitous phenomenon, and it can also be subtle; it can be influenced by random things we observe and hear. A classic anchoring experiment was done by Kahneman and Tversky who showed participants a spinning wheel that would randomly settle on a number. After the spinning wheel stopped, the participants were asked what percentage of African countries are part of the U.N. It turned out that the percentage quoted by the participants was correlated to the random, unrelated number they saw on the wheel; if they saw a larger number they quoted a larger percentage, and vice versa. One important feature of the anchoring effect that this experiment demonstrated was that it involves random numbers or phenomena that can be completely irrelevant to the issue at hand.

It’s hard to point to specific anchoring biases in drug discovery, but one thing we know is that scientists can be skewed by numbers all the time, especially if the numbers are promising and seem very accurate. For instance, being biased by sparse in vitro affinity data for some early hits, leads or series can blind you to optimization of downstream properties. People sometimes come around, but I have seen even experienced medicinal chemists get obsessed with early leads with very good affinities but poor properties. In general, random promising numbers relating to affinity, properties, clinical data etc. for particular sets of compounds can lead one to believing that other similar compounds will have similar properties, or that those numbers are very relevant to begin with.

As has been well-documented, “similarity” itself can be a bias since every chemist for instance will look at different features of compounds to decide whether they are similar or not. Objective computational similarity comparisons can diminish this bias a bit, but since there’s no right way of deciding what the “perfect” computational similarity measure is either (and there’s plenty of misleading similarity metrics), this solution carries its own baggage.

You can also be carried away by measurements (often done using fancy instrumentation) that can sound very accurate; in reality, they are more likely to simply be precise. This problem is a bigger subset of problems related to what is called “technological solutionism”. It is the habit of believing in data when it’s generated by the latest and greatest new experimental or computational technique. This data can anchor our beliefs about drug behavior and lead us to extrapolate when we shouldn’t. The key questions to ask in this regard are: Are the numbers being measured accurate? Do the numbers actually measure the effect we think they do and is the effect real and statistically significant? Is the effect actually relevant to my hypothesis or conclusion? That last question is probably the most important and not asking it can lead you to squander a lot of time and resources.

Availability heuristic: A bias related to anchoring is availability. This is the tendency to evaluate new information based on information - especially recent information - that can be easily recalled. In case of drug discovery, easily recalled information can include early stage data, data that’s simply easier to gather, data that’s “popular” or data that’s simply repeated enough number of times, in the literature or by word of mouth. There are countless reasons and why certain information is easily recalled while other information is not. They can also be related to non-scientific variables like emotional impact. Were you feeling particularly happy or sad when you measured a particular effect? Was the effect validated by groupthink and did it therefore make you feel vindicated? Was the piece of data described by an “important” person who you admire? All these factors can contribute to fixing a certain fact or belief in our minds. Availability of specific information can cement that information as the best possible or most representative information.

Everyone is biased by successful projects they have worked on. They may recall a particular functional group or synthetic reaction or computational technique that worked for them and believe that it will work for other cases. This is also an example of confirmation bias, but the reason it’s an availability heuristic hinges on the fact that other information - and most notably information that can counter one’s beliefs - is not easily available. Most of the times we report positive results and not negative ones; this is a general problem of the scientific literature and research policy. Sometimes gathering enough data that would tweak the availability of the result is simply too expensive to do. That’s understandable, but it also means that we should be more wary about what we choose to believe.

Finally, the availability heuristic is particularly strong when a recent decision leads to an important consequence; perhaps installing a fluorine in your molecule suddenly led to improved pharmacokinetics, or using a certain formulation led to better half lives in patients. It is then tempting to believe that the data that was available is the data that’s generalizable, especially when it has had a positive emotional impact on your state of mind.

Representativeness: The availability bias is also closely related to the representativeness fallacy. In one sense the representativeness fallacy reflects a very common failing of statistical thinking: the tendency to generalize to a large sample based on a representative sample. For instance, a set of “rules” for druglike behavior may have been drawn from a limited set of studies. It would then be tempting to think that those rules applied to everything that was not tested in those studies, simply on the basis of similarity to the cases that were tested. Representativeness can manifest itself in the myriad definitions of “druglike” used by medicinal chemists as we all as metrics like ligand efficiency.

A great example of representativeness comes from Tversky and Kahneman’s test involving personality traits. Consider the following description of an individual:

“Linda is a 55-year-old woman with a family. She likes reading and quiet reflection. Ever since she was a child, Linda has been non-confrontational, and in a tense situation prefers tactical retreats to open arguments.”

Given this information, what’s Linda’s likely profession?
a.             Librarian
b.             Doctor

Most people would pick a. since Linda’s introverted qualities seem to align with one’s mental image of a librarian. But the answer is really likely to be b. since there are far more doctors than librarians, so even a tiny percentage of doctors with the aforementioned traits would constitute a bigger number than librarians.

Now let us apply the same kind of reasoning to a description of a not-so-fictional molecule:

“Molecule X is a small organic molecule with a logP value of 3.2, 8 hydrogen bond acceptors, 4 hydrogen bond donors and a molecular weight of 247. It has shown activity against cancer cells and was discovered at Novartis using a robotics-enabled phenotypic screening technique with high throughput.”

Given this information, what is more likely?
a.             Molecule X is “druglike”.
b.             Molecule X is non-druglike.

What I have just described is the famous Lipinski’s Rule of 5 that lays down certain rules related to basic physicochemical properties for successful drugs. If you were dealing with a compound having these properties, you would be more likely to think it’s a drug. But among the unimaginably vast chemical space of compounds, the number of druglike compounds is vanishingly small. So there are far more non-druglike compounds than druglike compounds. Given this fact, Molecule X is very likely to not be a drug, yet one is likely to use its description to believe it’s a drug and pursue it.

I can also bet that the anchoring effect is at work here: the numbers “3.2” for logP and “247” for molecular weight which sound very accurate as well as the fact that a fancy technique at a Big Pharma company found this molecule are more likely to contribute to your belief that you have a great potential drug molecule at hand. But most of this information is marginally relevant at best to the real properties of Molecule X. We have again been misled by focusing on a tiny sample with several irrelevant properties and thinking it to be representative of a much larger group of data points.

Base rate fallacy: Representativeness leads us to another statistical fallacy: the base rate fallacy. As we saw above, the mistake in both the librarian and the druglike examples is that we fail to take into account the base rate of non-librarians and non-druglike compounds.

The base rate fallacy is generally defined as the tendency to ignore base rate or general information and focus only on specific cases. There are at least two examples in which I can see the base rate fallacy manifesting itself:

1. In overestimating HTS/VS hit rates against certain targets or for certain chemotypes without taking base hit rates into account. In turn, the bias can lead chemists to make fewer compounds than what might be necessary to get a hit.

2. The base rate fallacy is more generally related to ignoring how often you might obtain a certain result by chance; for instance, a correlation between expression levels of two proteins or a drug and a protein, or one involving non-specific effects of a druglike compound. The chance result can then feed into the other biases described above like representativeness or availability.

Anchoring, availability, representativeness and the base rate fallacy are classic examples of both extrapolating from a limited amount of information and ignoring lots of unknown information. They speak to the shortcuts that our thinking takes when trying to quickly conclude trends, rules and future directions of inquiry based on incomplete data. A lot of the solutions to these particular biases involve generating more data or finding it in the literature. Unfortunately this is not always an achievable goal in the fast-faced and cash-strapped environment of drug discovery. In that case, one should at least identify the most important pieces of data one would need to gather in order to update or reject a hypothesis. For example, one way to overcome the base rate fallacy is to calculate what kind of sampling might be necessary to improve the confidence in the data by a certain percentage. If all else fails, one must then regard the data or belief that he or she has as highly tentative and constantly keep on looking for evidence that might shore up other beliefs.

Cognitive biases are a very human construct, and they are so relevant to drug discovery and science in general because these are very human enterprises. In the ideal world of our imagination, science is an objective process of finding the truth (and of discovering drugs). In the real world, science is a struggle between human fallibility and objective reality. Whether in drug discovery or otherwise, at every step a scientist is struggling to square the data with the biases in his or her mind. Acknowledging these biases and constantly interrogating them is a small first step in at least minimizing their impact.

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