In the last Psychology of Performance blog, I introduced you to Kahneman’s seminal work (Thinking, Fast and Slow) on cognitive bias and decision making. This blog post continues that discussion.

System 1 continuously monitors all input and information. As a function of this it produces assessments of the variables of the situation with no specific intention and little effort. Kahneman refers to these as basic assessments (p. 90). The important point about basic assessments is that they are easily substituted for more difficult questions.  He goes on to say that basic assessments evolved to provide continuous assessments on questions of survival: How are things going? Is there a threat or a major opportunity? Is everything normal? Should I approach or avoid? We use a “mental shotgun” approach to situations and produce more computations than we need.  With this as background, we are vulnerable to substituting questions without knowing we did so.

Kahneman stated that if a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not quickly found, System 1 will find a related question that is easier and will answer it (p. 97). The danger is that System 2 is lazy, and following a path of least effort, will endorse an answer to a simpler question from System 1 without much evaluation or analysis regarding whether the answer actually is for the original question asked.  Furthermore, people do not tend to realize that this substitution has occurred.

How does this relate to leadership and thinking? From a psychology of performance perspective, leadership in organizations is just as vulnerable to these thinking errors as anyone else. Awareness of these processes requires intentional System 2 thinking about business and organizational problems. It also puts the burden on the leader to listen carefully to the answers provided by their reports and colleagues as they may be giving right answers to different questions than the original and not even be aware of it. This has potential to further negatively impact the performance of the organization or the individuals involved.

Have a day filled with mindfulness,

Robert A. Mines, Ph.D.,
CEO and Psychologist