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Why our decisions arent as clear cut as we think

“It Will Never Happen To Me”


 a feeling of calm satisfaction with your own abilities or situation that prevents you from trying harder”

Cambridge Online Dictionary

We have (probably) all received the advice about not taking shortcuts, and then ignored it and done it anyway. I know it’s riskier to cut across the park with the broken street lights and no CCTV or phone signal, but I’ve lived here all my life, I know what I’m doing.

Maybe I’m a lone worker. I know policy says I should check the risk register, but it’s only Mr So-and-so, I’ve known him for years…he wouldn’t hurt me.

Person​al Safety and Complacency

 Why do intelligent, rational and experienced people sometimes ignore the basics? 

In support of National Personal Safety Day I thought I would share a few thoughts. Personal Safety Courses are full of useful tips like:

  • Avoid poorly lit places at night 
  • Don’t show off anything valuable like phones and jewellery
  • Plan your route and check your vehicle is roadworthy
  • Make sure people know where you are going and when you will be back
  • Do your checks before you go out
  • Make sure your phone is charged and you can get a signal

Wonderful stuff…

But I have met so many people who openly admit that they don’t always do these things, even though they know they should. Why not?

This blog is not about how to keep safe walking across parks or visiting potentially risky clients. Not directly anyway. I want to delve into why we take shortcuts in the first place.

There are so many reasons why common sense sometimes goes out of the window. Conforming with office culture (nobody does it)  overconfidence in their own abilities; lack of time; can’t access the systems etc.

But what if it’s just Laziness?

The reality is that many people are overconfident in their own abilities, and tend to place too much faith in their intuition. But is it our fault?  Stay with me on this, because it turns out, the way we think is in fact wired for short cuts.  

“If there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action… Laziness is built deep into our nature.” 

The law of least effort-Daniel Kahneman.

How our brain actually works…

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Nobel prize winner Daniel Khaneman explains that we utilise  two very different modes of thought: “System 1” and “System 2”.

System 1

It’s the part of us that gets out of its tree when a car cuts us up, or the ref makes a bad decision. It is closely linked to our Fight/Flight Response. 

  • Automatic
  • Emotional
  • Intuitive
  • We can’t control it

Examples of your system 1 at work…

2+2 =?

The capital of France is?

Driving your car on a familiar route  

Trying to catch the box of cornflakes as it falls out of the top cupboard you just opened.

System 2

Allocates attention to more demanding mental activities. Concentration and decision making. What we regard as our conscious selves. 

  • We are in control
  • Slower and more deliberate
  • Rational
  • Effortful

Examples of your system 2 at work…

17 x 35= ? (System 1- I’m rubbish at maths- don’t even try) or a bit more thought required here… (System 2…hmmm, let me see now… ten minutes later… 595! Yeah!)

Learning to drive

Count how many letter “A”‘s there are in this post

It saves energy.

Thinking about things is hard work. If you’ve ever felt physically and mentally exhausted after a day spent compiling a performance report or statistics you will know what I mean.

The reason you felt so exhausted is because…

“…effortful mental activity appears to be especially expensive in the currency of glucose” Daniel Kahneman.

The more often we do something however, the less conscious thought we need give it. The task starts to shift from requiring deliberate thought, to being an automatic (system 1) function.

Simply put, system 1 shortcuts allow us to preserve energy. It plays far more of a leading role in our day to day lives than we give it credit for and speeds up the kind of response that would be unacceptably slow if our conscious selves were in control. 

Derren Brown and insurance salespeople know it too.

“But I’ve Been Doing This For Years, It’ll Never Happen To Me.”

Of course there is no substitute for experience, but if that were all there is to it, experienced people would never get into bother and beginners would be cannon fodder.

System 1 is constantly looking for threat. It’s always asking: is there anything new here that I should worry about? If the answer is “no” we relax into a state of cognitive ease, where we are more comfortable, happier and familiar.

And the more often I do something without terrible consequences, the more likely my threat/risk detector will downgrade it’s state of alert and put the task on autopilot.

 We can, it appears, “train” our system 1 autopilot to make the connection between certain signs and potential danger. Jason Bourne like “Situational awareness” can be learned through experience but here too there are pitfalls.

Sometimes doing the job for 30 years could make us more vulnerable.

“Many experts loose the creativity and imagination of the less informed. They are so intimately familiar with known patterns that they may fail to recognise or respect the importance of the new wrinkle”

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt 

In his book “The Gift of Fear” Gavin de Becker tells the story of a member of the public who cheated death by walking out of a store seconds after he had walked in. He could see nothing that registered as a threat in his conscious mind, but just had a gut feeling that something was wrong. It was broad daylight and there was only one other car in the parking lot.

Moments later, a police officer walked into the same store and was shot and killed. He had stumbled across an armed robbery in progress and apparently didn’t have that same gut feeling as the fortunate member of the public. Why not?

With the officers’ training we might expect that he would have picked up the signs… Tragically not.

Could the officer’s experience have taught him that armed robberies tend not to happen in broad daylight (which is statistically accurate). Potentially already in a state of cognitive ease backed up by the confirmation bias: where “people seek data which are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold.” was his threat level downgraded? Of course we will never know.

How did the untrained member of the public avoid a similar fate? Was it intuition? Devine intervention? Voodoo?

Perhaps his lack of experience was the thing that saved him. 

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Shunryu Suzuki on the Zen concept of “Shoshin” or “Beginners Mind”

To sum this all up then…

The way we think and view the world is extremely complex. It seems that our thought processes are designed to conserve energy wherever possible and most of our decisions are on autopilot!

The idea that our conscious, rational and logical minds are in control is not always true. The reality is that our thinking brain is lazy as hell and usually goes along with what system 1 says.  

So the next time you step out of the office, ask yourself if you are on autopilot. Is the complacent, lazy nature of your brain exposing you to unnecessary risk?  Maybe “Been there, Done That” isn’t so clever after all.