Watch out, our brain is playing games.

Watch out, our brain is playing games

Situational Awareness [1] is the ability to capture the clues and cues, and see bad things coming in time to change the outcome. In support services, like IT support - but also elsewhere - Situational Awareness can be hard to maintain in high stress situations. Some simple actions can help teams drive more successful outcomes with small changes to their environment and working practices. This short article will help to appreciate the difference between 'fast thinking' and 'slow thinking' and how it should change our approach to critical incidents, issues and situations.

Customer satisfaction highly depends on the speed with which incidents are solved. Yet we must be careful not to rush to an answer too quickly when an incident is reported to us. Our brain can trick us into jumping to incorrect conclusions . Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman advocates 'slow' thinking under certain circumstances, and those triggers happen during the lifecycle of some incidents in Incident Management.

How often have you, in resolving an issues, thought: "How could that wrong turn really have happened to me?" To what extent did your intuition let you down? Issue Resolution Management relies sometimes on intuitive thinking from knowledge and experience, and once an issue is more complex, a different kind of thought process is needed.

During consultancy practice we frequently encounter organizations paying insufficient attention to critical moments and fail to take the time to step back and think critically about actions that need to be taken. A well thought plan of action, based upon a thorough understanding of clearly presented fact is missing.

When issues are not clearly described, the search for a solution is hindered. It slows down the resolution of the issue, which is not only expensive but also makes everyone involved unhappy.

The first, is not the best

Daniel Kahneman, who was the first psychologist in 2002 winning the Nobel Prize in Economics, explains why an intuitive reaction is not always the best. In his groundbreaking book “Thinking: fast and slow” (2) He discusses intuitive ('fast') and rational ('slow') thinking. He shows us how an intuitive reaction could lead to problems and what the limitations are of our common sense.

We seem to think we assess problems correctly and that we have a quick and accurate understanding; so we respond quickly and intuitively. But beware, our brain plays games, warns Kahneman.

The following five examples show that intuition is not necessarily the best trusted advisor

  1. The halo effect (3): a certain quality suggests that other qualities are present as well. For example: a child is good in languages and reading and therefore will probably also do well in other subjects ...
  2. WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is): due to tunnel vision, we are not open to other observations. A familiar example is a video in which a gorilla walks through the image and no one notices if they are instructed to pay attention to an activity while watching the video.
  3. Framing: the same information can be viewed both positively and negatively, depending on how the message is stated. Which product do you prefer? A product that is contaminated '1% '? Or a product that '99% pure'?
  4. The anchoring effect: we take a decision based on a certain reference point, the anchor. Here we are strongly influenced by the way in which facts and figures are presented to us, and which are not really relevant to the issue. "Just this week 20% discount on all DVDs”
  5. The availability bias: we consider an event more likely, if we can memorize a clear example of this event. We suffer from selective memory and recall the impactful, unusual occurrences. For example, there are many media reports about kidnappings, so we think more kidnappings have occurred this year.

Does auto-pilot provide the best actions and customer service?

When under time pressure managing an incident or any situation, people therefore complete 'the picture' quickly by filling in blanks with data that is not true. In IT incident management for example, speed is an important factor. Customer satisfaction depends strongly on the speed with which problems are solved. It is therefore important that we know when intuition should lead us, and when thorough analysis is required. Since we biologically prefer ‘system 1’ thinking, and we lose Situational Awareness of time passing when our working memory load is too high [4] we need an external trigger to drive the switch.

Kahneman believes that fast and intuitive thinking ('system 1', in his terminology) is safe if:

  • The issue is simple;
  • You have seen an issue like this many times before and resolved it successfully
  • The cost of being wrong is low and the consequences are acceptable

Kahneman believes that we can think more slowly ('system 2'), when:

  • Issues are complex and the solution is not obvious;
  • You have not seen an issue like this before. For example, a new machine falters and existing procedures and protocols are not bringing the solution;
  • The cost of being wrong is high and the consequences unacceptable. For example, the machine stops which significantly impairs the operation.

Switching at the right time

Everyone is able to respond intuitively to a simple issue. It is essential to distinguish between simple and complex issues, and between a fast response and a slow, more thoughtful one.

So how did it go with our three questions?

You are a participant in a race. You overtake the second person. What position are you in? The intuitive answer is "I am now the first." The answer of course is that if you overtake the one who is second, you take his place, and you are now second.

Mary´s Father has five daughters. Their names are: 1. Nana, 2. Nene, 3. Nini, 4. Nono and ?? What is the name of the fifth daughter? The intuitive response most people give is to look after-a-e-i-o-. The correct answer is already given in the question.

A cup and teapot set costs  £110. The teapot costs £100 more than the cup. How much is a cup?
Intuitive response "£110 - £100 = £10." The correct answer is £5.

“Slow” thinking does not mean that in response to a complex issue you need to stand on the brakes and continue to address the issues in slow motion. It means that the thinking mode switches from Knowledge and Experience to thorough data gathering, critical thinking, and evidence based decision making with an appropriate degree of risk management. It does mean also to keep on asking questions when issues are reported to you. Stay critical and clear in your thinking. Something that can be learned.


[1] Nov 14 2012

[2] Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, fast and slow,  2011 Penguin  Books.

[3] Halo effect: name given by psychologist Edward Thorndike.

[4] Load Theory of Selective Attention and Cognitive Control, Lavie et al 2004