Beware of mental models and System 1 thinking


I was in a meeting discussing the upcoming safety initiatives for the next quarter. It is summer here and quite hot. Everyone in the room agreed our number 1 problem is dehydration, so we need a focused campaign on heat stress and hydration. We discussed an action plan including:

  • Placing personal dehydration testers in toilets,
  • Allowing camelbaks water dispensers on site and
  • All safety observation conversation to include hydration, etc

Everyone was very happy with the action plan. During the discussion I wanted to see how many visits to the medical centre we had had and I happened to have the medical centre visits data with me. It appears that treatment of on-site staff for dehydration has not occurred for over 2 years!

What? According to these experienced safety advisors, dehydration is our number 1 problem. Actually according to the data, eye injuries outnumber dehydration nearly 10 to 1. Spending more time and effort on dehydration didn’t seem warranted when we look at the actual incidents. In reality, it appears we do hydration well on-site so no new initiatives needed, just keeping doing what we are doing!

So what’s going on here? Mental models and System 1 thinking. The group was applying its mental short cuts based on theirs or others experiences (on and offsite) and using the thinking that is intuitive and associative rather than deliberate and reflective. This is a trap that we all can fall into unless we are aware of it..

Beware of those powerful mental models and our automatic thinking when making key decisions. Use actual data whenever you can and ask “what is this data telling us?” Have a little prompt on the top of your notepad. “Are you in System 1 or System 2 thinking?”


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