Intuitions Vs. Formulas

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Intuitions Vs. Formulas

Raelene Freitag, Director of CRC and International Projects, NCCD

Two things have been quite clear to me throughout my time working on the Structured Decision Making® (SDM) system:

1. The SDM® system is really important; AND

2. It is hard to get people excited about it.

Daniel Kahneman's recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, provides intriguing research that helps explain why both are so. You have probably seen or heard the Children's Research Center (CRC) provide lots of research and data about why the SDM system is so important; however, research on getting people excited to use the SDM system is lacking.

Why is it so hard to get everyone excited about using the SDM system? When I see child protection workers and organizations get excited about other things that have far less research support, I admit to being puzzled. Shouldn't we get excited about things that have evidence showing they are effective, and be cautious about things that may appear to be good ideas—but are unproven?

The main message of Kahneman's book is that our brains have two approaches to thinking, which he refers to as System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is our intuitive thinking. It handles most of our daily interactions and uses a variety of shortcuts to quickly process the vast amount of information we manage every moment. It is usually quite effective, but is also prone to cognitive errors and biases. Importantly, it is quite unaware that it is making errors or operating under biases.

System 2 is our slow, thoughtful, methodical thinking. Research has demonstrated that when we do System 2 thinking, there is a physiological response. It is hard work. Our brains tend to be happiest when they are not working so hard, so we are quite happy to operate in System 1 whenever we can.

In essence, SDM assessments force us into System 2 thinking. It will always FEEL much easier to operate in System 1. And, (this is my interpretation) we may confuse intuition with professionalism, mistakenly thinking that relying on System 2 thinking is a crutch needed only by those with less experience.

However, Kahneman reviews more than 50 years of research in his "intuitions vs. formulas" chapter and concludes (as just about everyone else has) that for important decisions, it is better to rely on a well-crafted formula (such as an SDM assessment), especially in complicated situations (such as many child protection situations).

Still, Kahneman argues that intuition should not be ignored. In chapters describing a year-long dialogue with Gary Klein, whose research on intuitive decision making is well-respected, Kahneman agrees that well-honed intuition and a well-crafted formula can serve as a check and balance.

I encourage anyone who ever has to make an important decision to read this book (as in ALL of us!). Kahneman tells the story of how we think in System 1 and System 2 by weaving together a wealth of research in lively and captivating narrative. At the end of the day, I am persuaded more than ever that the daily, vital decisions around child protection deserve the best of intuitive thinking AND the best of well-crafted tools that bring out the best of System 2 thinking.

"A more general lesson that I learned ... was do not simply trust intuitive judgment—your own or that of others—but do not dismiss it, either." p. 232

"The research suggests a surprising conclusion: to maximize predictive accuracy, final decisions should be left to formulas, especially in low-validity environments." p. 225

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011. 

Raelene Freitag is the Director of CRC and International Projects at NCCD.

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