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Leading a Discussion With Your Airmen on "Understanding Thinking"



“Understanding Thinking”

Download the template HERE


Introduction – How do our minds process information to make decisions?  Often, we rely on System 1 (fast thinking) as we make simple judgments, but when the situation requires more deliberate, conscious thought, we rely on System 2 (slow  thinking).  The more aware we are of the different ways of thinking and how we process information, the better control we will have over our responses.  In the military, this is critical because our decisions influence the life and death of our adversaries and our fellow Airmen.

Learning Objectives

·         Understand the characteristics of System 1 and System 2 thinking methods

·         Understand how System 1 and System 2 thinking can influence our decision–making process


·        “The Science of Thinking” – video, 2017. How the brain works, how we learn, and why we sometimes make stupid mistakes, 12:10.

·          “Understanding Thinking” - PowerPoint Slides

Additional resources –

·         Callibrain – video, 2016. Review for Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, 09:54. 

·         “Daniel Kahneman on Thinking, Fast and Slow” – video, 27:39. 


·         Goal: To introduce students to System 1 and System 2 thinking, and gain greater awareness of how the brain processes information in order to make judgments and decisions


·         Questions for Command Teams to discuss:

o   Why is this topic and a good discussion about it important?  (What is the value for Airmen?)

o   Who will you be in the discussion group (i.e., CGOs, NCOs, SNCOs, civilians, flight commanders)?

o   Where will the discussion take place (during a meeting, stand-alone event, or other session)?

o   Does the setting have support for viewing slides and/or videos?

o   Who will lead the discussion? Which Command Team members have a role?


·         Attention Step.  (Slide 2)  Give Airmen sticky note or have them take out scrap piece of paper.  Display slide (Instructor Reference folder) that states: “A bat and ball together cost $1.10.  The bat costs a dollar more than the ball.   How much does the ball cost?”  Give students no more than 30 secs to answer.  Have students go around the room and display/give answers.



o   “If you answered $0.10 you are not alone; however, you are also not correct.  The correct answer is $0.05.  As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (author of the book Thinking, Fast and Slow) explains, he has posed this question to some of the greatest universities in the country: Harvard, Princeton, M.I.T.  Each time, more than 50 percent of participants submit the same answer: $0.10.  How can such simple arithmetic deceive some of our greatest minds?  While it might be tempting to immediately jump to the conclusion the cause is due to poor intelligence, more often this is not the case.  If you sat down and deliberately looked at the problem, you would have no trouble finding your error in judgment and computing the correct answer.  Rather, this is a classic case of intellectual laziness.  We do not check the simple math because it requires thinking, and thinking requires effort, and our brains are both wonderfully complex and inherently lazy.  The Bat and Ball Problem is a classic illustration of the differences between the two “systems” of our brain – System 1 (or fast thinking) and System 2 (slow thinking).”


·         Introduction – Today, we are going to learn how our thought process by looking at the two systems of thinking, Systems 1 (fast thinking) & 2 (slow thinking).  We are going to study the characteristics of both, paying particular attention to System 1 (fast thinking) to learn about some of the cognitive shortcuts (or heuristics) that it uses in order to make quick judgments and decisions. 

·         Goal – To learn about the two systems of the thought process so that Airmen can discuss and understand the complexity involved in human thought, and how bias and emotion can influence our decisions and basic thought processes

·         Two Systems -- Show Video: “The Science of Thinking” 

As the video shows, not all thinking is created equal.  Our brains have an uncanny ability to quickly analyze and assess information, and determine how to handle said information as efficiently as possible, which may vary depending on the complexity of the information or task involved.  As Tversky and Kahneman (1974) explain, “System 1 and System 2 are not actual systems of the brain; rather, they are a relatively simple means of breaking down the complex functions of the brain into terms easily-understood by the layman. 

·         Sample Discussion Questions:

·         What are some characteristics of System 1 (fast) thinking? Fast, efficient, automatic, unconscious

·         What are some characteristics of System 2 (slow) thinking?  Slow, deliberate, takes time and practice

·         What influences much of our System 1 (fast) thinking?                                               

o   Answers may include, but are not limited to:

§  Previous experience/exposure

§  Natural Instinct (ex. “Fight or Flight”, self-preservation, etc.)

·         Why might “previous experience” sometimes be a double-edged sword when it comes to judgment and decision making?  

We potentially misjudge the current situation, which may differ from previous experience, causing us to apply poor logic/reasoning. 

·         Are there preventative measures we can take to ensure we don’t misjudge the situation?  Solicit responses from students.  They may have personal examples they wish to share.

·         Specific to the military, how do we build that bank of “previous experience” in order to ensure automatic responses?

Training!  Learning processes to the extent they become automatic, particularly in emergency situations.  Often referred to as “muscle memory,” this is simply the task being “passed” from System 2 over to System 1

·         Is one system better than the other?   

No – we need each system equally in order to function.  If we only functioned using System 2 (slow thinking), it would be incredibly time-consuming and potentially dangerous (in time-sensitive situations).  If we only used System 1 (fast thinking), we would make poor judgments based off incomplete information. Our brains were designed to use both our fast and slow thinking.  Our challenge is recognizing when we should and should not trust System 1, or rely too heavily on System 2.

·         As leaders, how can we attempt to avoid the pitfalls of System 1?   Answer may include, but are not limited to:                                                                 

o   Gather more information

o   Be more deliberate in decision process when time is available by using decision model

o   Solicit feedback from others (Red Team)

o   Consider other points of view

o   Brainstorm multiple courses of action

·         How can we attempt to avoid the pitfalls of System 2? Answer may include, but are not limited to:

o   Set time limits

o   Implement risk mitigation measures for unknowns

o   Use decision making model/process

o   Utilize team members in process

·         Why is it important to understand the way we think?

o   Make better decisions

o   Solve problems more effectively

·         What are some examples where you might make a System 1 (fast thinking) judgment when perhaps you should slow down and consider System 2 (slow thinking)?