We’re told by neuroscientists that our brain weighs about 2.5% of our bodyweight but consumes close to 20% of our energy. Over our evolutionary history it has developed two different cognitive capacities to help us survive long enough to procreate. This dual-system thinking capability has enabled us to source food, find shelter, and defend ourselves against bigger, faster, and stronger predators as well as nature’s other dangers like earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts, and each other! They have achieved that by giving us communication and social skills that have made collaboration, cooperation, and organization possible. Psychologist and Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman describes these thinking systems as System 1 and System 2.
If you have an interest in the way we all think and act the way we do, I can strongly recommend his book called Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s incredibly interesting and will give you some valuable insights into how better to interact with your clients, how to make better decisions by being aware of how our cognitive biases can lead to irrational decisions, and what you can do about it.
Kahneman describes System 1 thinking as automatic, spontaneous, fast, gut-level thinking that is driven by intuition rather than considered and reasoned thought. It is often, but not always, driven by emotional and it is heavily influenced by your past experiences, and acquired skills that have become habits – think of a race car driver. Our normal daily habits and our responses to normal daily issues in life and business are dealt with by System 1 thinking.
System 1 thinking does not use much energy because it’s instant and this preservation of energy is important because if we need to deliberately think about everything, we need to do in a day we would consume so much of our resources we’d need to rest mid-morning and/or consume lots more calories just to survive. We’d need to spend the day grazing like cows and other animals.
System 2 on the other hand is deliberate, thoughtful, careful, effortful thinking. This thinking system is deployed to deal with complex issues that we need to take some time to think about. As with System 1, we draw on our experience and knowledge but do so much more slowly and deliberately and come to conclusions based on our beliefs and values. It’s not something we can do on the run because we need to gather our thoughts. Our pupils dilate, and our heart rate and blood pressure rise as we systematically consider the subject matter. This type of thinking consumes an enormous amount of energy relative to System 1 thinking.
However, as we become skilled at something our demand for energy diminishes because performing it at a high level becomes habitual… second nature. When discussing attention and effort, Kahneman refers to the Law of Least Effort which comes into play with both physical and cognitive exertion. The Law simply posits that if there are several ways of achieving a given outcome people tend to gravitate to the least demanding course of action. You’ll probably have noticed it’s a law that your children have no problem complying with.
While applying System 2 thinking to the issue of why more accountants have not embraced the idea of investing more resources in developing their business advisory services it occurred to me that maybe it’s the Law of Least Effort coming into play. They have invested many years mastering the craft of compliance work, it is yielding a very satisfactory return for the effort required so why bother drawing on effortful System 2 thinking that is required to (a) develop an advisory capability, and (b) for a while anyway, System 2 thinking is very much required to deliver an advisory service that has value.
In other words, my hypothesis is the evolutionary process that has served to feed and protect us also gets in the way of us exploring new opportunities if they require us to make trade-offs with activities that are already working well, and which do not consume much energy. If this is true, it makes sense if we believe advisory services is something we would like to introduce, we should consider hiring people who are not encumbered by being highly skilled in compliance work.