The decisions we make

The decisions we make

What colour shirt to wear today? Is that gap between cars big enough for me to pull out into? How to approach the next team meeting? How to respond to what a colleague just said?

Decisions, decisions… We are making them all the time and more aware of some than others. They are the pivot points that determine the course of events we are part of - they shape the way we interact with teams, select and deploy strategy and provide leadership.

Two Systems

Daniel Kahneman’s research tells us there are two decision making mechanisms; System one and system two.

System one – Naturalistic – Think Bones in Star Trek

This is fast time, in the moment decision making. Time is not taken to process different options, we intuitively select the option which feels right. This system relies on experience, so the more experience there is, the better the ability to make decisions and for those to be good ones. This is where experts are reacting to a situation without consciously registering what is triggering their action. It also allows mental capacity to be freed up for concentrating on other things like seeing the big picture and thinking ahead.

System two – Classical – Think Spock in Star Trek

This is making decisions in slow time, when there is time to consider different options that are on the table. It allows us to evaluate factors and possible outcomes and then make a logical choice of the best course of action. This is non-contact decision making that is more strategic and made in advance of an interaction.


Naturalistic Decision Making is useful to us, it builds on experience to develop intuition that we can rely on, but over reliance on it can be a downfall.

It can lead us down a path of doing things the way they have always been done and therefore getting the results we’ve always got. It can narrow our thinking so that we don’t notice changes in the environment and miss warnings of danger or potential opportunities.

As a system it is lazy and will look for the easy option, replacing a difficult question with an easy one e.g. replacing “who is the most competent and qualified for the job” with “who do I like more”. It is more susceptible to unconscious bias that sways judgement and not necessarily for reasons that we would choose if more time was given to the consideration.

A bit of both

If system one is useful in being efficient and reliable most of the time, but carries pitfalls if over relied on, then a combination of both is a good way forward. We can use slow thinking to check and challenge fast thinking, known as Professional Judgement Decision Making (PJDM).

Improving the Process

When experienced in a topic and situation it is important to make time for slow thinking that can question and check the outputs of fast thinking. Questions like;

  • What factors are influencing my approach/strategy/decisions in this situation?
  • Are those the best factors to be basing decisions on?
  • With hindsight will I be satisfied that this decision was well reasoned?

When encountering more novel situations it is necessary to build up experience that will allow faster intuitive decision making to become possible and reliable. This building of experience can be more actively progressed by making time to reflect on experiences, reviewing the influencing factors at play and evaluating the decisions made.

Reference: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Simon Coker is an Impact Associate. He’s an adventurous experiential learning enthusiast working with people to explore, understand and develop leadership and collaborative working.