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  • Julien Haye

Beyond Intuition: Transforming Risk Assessment with System 2 Thinking

Transforming Risk Assessment with System 2 Thinking

Optimising Risk Management Practices Through Consistency and Adaptability

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman – I have been wondering what the impact of System 1 and System 2 thinking on risk management, especially when it comes to making decisions and assessing risks, could be. System 1 thinking refers to our intuitive, automatic, and emotional responses, while System 2 thinking involves deliberate and analytical reasoning. I believe that understanding the impact of these thinking systems, especially system 1 heuristics, is crucial in improving our risk assessment or RCSA frameworks and making better-informed decisions. In this article, we will explore the significance of System 2 thinking in risk assessment and discuss practical steps to enhance our decision-making capabilities.

The Role of System 2 Thinking in Risk Assessment

Our instinctive System 1 thinking, influenced by emotions and biases, often leads us to make suboptimal decisions when assessing risks. However, by consciously engaging our System 2 thinking, we can overcome these limitations and make more informed choices. System 2 thinking enables us to consider various factors, analyse information, and weigh the potential consequences of our decisions. By tapping into this critical thinking mode, we can enhance the accuracy and effectiveness of our risk assessment processes.

In immediate, life-threatening situations like being faced with a lion or any other imminent danger, System 1 thinking is crucial. It allows for rapid, instinctive responses that prioritise survival. In such cases, there is little time for deliberate analysis or weighing long-term consequences. Immediate action is required to ensure personal safety, and System 1 thinking is designed to help us react quickly and automatically in these moments.

However, when it comes to decisions with longer-term implications or more complex scenarios, a more thoughtful and deliberate approach is necessary. This is where System 2 thinking comes into play. Engaging System 2 allows us to consider various factors, gather information, evaluate risks, and anticipate potential consequences.

For example, in business decision-making, factors such as financial implications, market trends, long-term sustainability, and competitive analysis need to be considered. System 2 thinking enables us to critically analyse these factors and make informed choices based on a deeper understanding of the potential risks and rewards.

So, the time horizon of the impact does influence the type of thinking that is most suitable. Immediate, high-stakes situations call for quick, instinctive responses (System 1), while decisions with longer-term implications benefit from a more thoughtful and analytical approach (System 2). By recognising the time sensitivity and complexity of the situation, we can determine which thinking system to engage for optimal decision-making.

In the context of risk assessment, emotions play a significant role in our decision-making process. They can cloud our judgment and cause us to overestimate or underestimate risks based on how we feel about a particular outcome. For example, if we have a positive emotional attachment to a certain activity, we may downplay the associated risks. Conversely, if we have a negative emotional response, we may overestimate the potential dangers.

Biases further influence our risk assessment. Cognitive biases are inherent tendencies or patterns of thinking that can lead to systematic errors in judgment. For instance, the availability heuristic bias occurs when we judge the likelihood of an event based on how easily we can recall similar instances from memory. This can lead to overestimating risks that are more readily available in our minds, even if they are statistically unlikely.

System 2 thinking, on the other hand, is deliberate, analytical, and requires conscious effort. It allows us to override our instinctive responses and engage in critical thinking. By activating System 2, we can consider various factors, evaluate information objectively, and weigh the potential consequences of our decisions more accurately.

Engaging System 2 thinking involves deliberately slowing down, taking time to reflect, and applying logical reasoning. It helps us question our initial judgments and biases, seek out additional information, and consider alternative perspectives. By consciously utilizing this mode of thinking, we can mitigate the impact of emotional influences and cognitive biases on our risk assessments, leading to more informed and rational decision-making.

Recognising Situations and Embracing Reflection

A fundamental step in leveraging System 2 thinking for risk assessment is learning to recognise situations where errors are more likely to occur, or where the stakes are high. By being aware of these contexts, we can consciously push ourselves to engage in deeper reflection and analysis. Taking the time to sit down and critically think about the three key aspects of risk – probability, impact, and mitigation – can significantly improve our decision-making process.

Process Assessment for Risk Identification and Evaluation

An excellent way to strengthen risk assessment practices within your organisation is through a comprehensive process assessment. This involves reviewing the process for identifying and assessing risks across business units. The assessment should focus on several key areas:

  • Examine whether the risk assessment process is being consistently applied across all business units. Inconsistent application can lead to disparities in risk management practices and hinder effective decision-making.

  • Evaluate whether the risk assessment process is regularly updated to reflect changes in the business environment. Outdated risk profiles can result in inadequate risk mitigation strategies and increased exposure to potential threats.

  • Review whether the risk assessment process is properly documented and automated to the extent possible. Documentation ensures transparency, consistency, and the ability to track changes over time. Automation streamlines the process, reduces manual errors, and facilitates timely updates.

  • Addressing Gaps and Improving Risk Assessment

The process assessment may uncover gaps or inefficiencies in the risk assessment process. Identifying these areas of improvement is essential for enhancing risk management practices within the organisation. Some potential findings and corresponding solutions include:

  • If certain business units are not consistently applying the risk assessment process, it is crucial to develop standardized risk assessment templates and training materials. This ensures consistency and promotes best practices throughout the organisation.

  • If the risk assessment process is not regularly updated, steps should be taken to establish a robust mechanism for reviewing and updating risk profiles. Regular assessments should be integrated into the organisational workflow to capture evolving risks.

  • Organisations should prioritize proper documentation of the risk assessment process, including guidelines and procedures. Additionally, leveraging available technologies to automate the process can improve efficiency, accuracy, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.


Too many organisations I worked with relied on automatic responses – ie. emotionally driven heuristics – to a situation whether it was about dealing with an incident or performing an assessment. This was directly link to a need for self-protection in a perceived unsafe environment and inadequate risk culture.

In the realm of risk assessment, engaging System 2 thinking is paramount to make informed decisions and mitigate potential threats effectively. By recognising situations where errors are likely, reflecting on risk factors, and conducting process assessments, your organisations can enhance their risk assessment practices. Embracing System 2 thinking allows for a more deliberate, analytical, and accurate evaluation of risks, ultimately contributing to better business decisions.


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