Finding Insights In ‘Fast’ And ‘Slow’ Thinking

Our Psychosocial Director GRAHAM FAWCETT shares useful insights from his exploration of fast and slow thinking.

Last year, popping to the shops was effortless. On one occasion, I had three items to buy in three shops in my local street, and I was back home within 15 minutes. But yesterday, the same trip took over an hour. It was anything but effortless and it left me feeling more tired than was warranted.

In another example, we know that stress coupled with time pressure leads to a range of psychological phenomena including forgetfulness, tunnel vision, poor decision-making and a lack of attention to detail.

Psychological aspects of both phenomena are linked to well-researched cognitive processes called ‘fast and slow thinking’. ‘Fast thinking’ is effortless, automatic and is how we handle well-rehearsed tasks. An example is answering ‘what is 2+2?’. The answer comes immediately and seemingly from nowhere. Another example is popping to the shops prior to lockdown. We know how to get there, where the shops are, roughly how long the trip will take and so on. There is not much cognitive effort involved. Indeed we may daydream our way through the process given it is so routine. Under stress or danger our fast thinking takes over e.g. we slam on the brakes when a child runs into the road.

Where our routines are disrupted, it is helpful to take a moment to reset expectations and prepare our-self for the most likely worst case scenario.”

Slow thinking, on the other hand, is effortful, not automatic and is how we handle unrehearsed or creative tasks. An example is ‘what is 16 times 38?’. The answer takes effort and we are conscious of the process to obtain an answer. Another example is popping to the shops during partial lock down. We have no idea how long it will take, what shops are open, whether they are stocked, how to navigate the shop. What was once a routine and effortless activity, becomes non-routine and effortful. Daydreaming yields disproportionate problems – if we forget the sugar we can no longer ask someone to hold our place in the queue and nip back to get the item, we may have to start round the shop all over again.

Fast and slow thinking processes are not inherently problematic; they become problematic when we engage them for the wrong issue or expect to be able to use one style and can’t. Intentionally engaging with slow thinking processing can help us to be more relaxed generally, make better decisions and be less fatigued.

Where our routines are disrupted (e.g. shopping, commuting etc) it is helpful to take a moment to reset expectations and prepare our-self for the most likely worst case scenario – the shop will be closed, will have a queue, won’t have the item; the train / coach / bus, if it turns up, will be full; the local authority will be making the most of empty streets to catch up on roadwork’s; police check points may have become army checkpoints and, for once, no amount of bargaining will get you through. Allow time for these disruptions together with the possibility that we may not accomplish much or anything of what we intended.

What are normally slow thinking events (e.g. planning meetings, operations and strategy meetings and so forth) may have become reset to fast thinking, problem-solving events, in the stress of the Covid-19 response.  It is helpful to pay attention to that and to mindfully reset the tone of the meeting. Slow the meeting down by taking time to check in, to do a grounding exercise, to ask what to leave outside the meeting and what each person wants from the meeting. If the meeting has papers, then assume people have either not read them or, if they have, haven’t internalised their content. Take time to read the papers first, and if there are no papers, take time for each person to make jottings against agenda items. All of this serves to slow thinking down, reduces the likelihood of people saying the first thing that comes to their mind, and leads to more thorough and thoughtful decision-making.

In the midst of the pandemic, much has been written about fatigue and lethargy. It seems likely that when we mismatch fast and slow thinking processes to events in our lives, we may contribute to this lethargy. This can happen because the processes become muddled and we apply one style inappropriately. It can also happen with the fatigue of realising that once simple procedures (popping out to the shop) now require significant cognitive effort. We should give ourselves space and time to accommodate this, and to recognise why we might be so tired sometimes. In short, we should be kind with ourselves, colleagues and family.

Thrive can help you applying these insights into your business processes. Email us to set up a conversation with one of our consultants.

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