Two-way thinking in natural resource management

By Andrew L. Rypel

“I have more confidence in the ability of institutions to improve their thinking than in the ability of individuals to improve their thinking” ~Daniel Kahneman

It is long recognized that there are two dominant modes of thinking (Glatzeder 2011). New research and empirical data support the elemental interplay between these modes in our behavior, summarized in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman. These two modes or systems of thinking are dynamic and influence our behavior in a vast variety of subtle and less so ways. System 1 is ‘fast’ and intuitive, operating almost unconsciously, and relies on learned associations. It is tempting to rely on this mode for decisions that must be made quickly. The problem is that this mode is often wrong. System 2 by contrast uses reason, and the slow process of reasoning. Immanuel Kant wrote“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.” Yet reason and System 2 require deliberate focused effort, and training to get better at. It is ‘slow’. The enlightenment was fueled largely by a growing appreciation for System 2. System 2 thinking is also endemic to science and the scientific method which developed as a way of using reason and rational thought. This is the system used to conduct what is now colloquially and increasingly referred to as ‘deep work’. Sadly many of us, while claiming to rely extensively on System 2, in fact spend most of our time in System 1. A prime example is our politics. How often are any of us swayed by excellent arguments from the other side, even following a rational debate?

The question for this blog is: Can Kahneman’s ideas be applied to group decisions, and thus to natural resource management? It’s a bit murky, but there are clues, and I have some thoughts. In Thinking, Fast and Slow  Kahneman was clearly writing about the combination of the two systems in each person – not groups of people. Yet it seems plausible that a well-managed team of people could avoid the excesses and extract the best elements of thinking from each system. But, different teams of people invariably have different mixes of System 1- or 2-leaning thought. Further, the appropriate mix of thinking needed for each environmental problem may differ, and change over time. 

Reflecting on the usefulness and practicality of both systems of thinking is probably universally helpful. This exercise is an example of ‘metacognition’, which can be defined generally as: thinking about how you think. Metacognition is a high order abstraction that might help us personally, but also collectively as team members or leaders in organizations. System 1 is needed to make timely decisions and prevent gridlock and lack of progress. It is the system in which we spend most of our time, and there is a reactive ease to its use. But this system has inherent flaws and is vulnerable to poor judgment. Humans generally avoid decisions perceived as risky because of loss aversion, which has evolutionary foundations. Thus, we often default towards safe and familiar decisions, even when a riskier choice might be better. System 2 can help reduce loss aversion (by better thinking through the pros and cons of a decision), provided there is enough time, and often the best available science. It is increasingly clear that Kahneman himself believes group decisions can be improved, primarily through slower processes and better decision making structures (see above opening quote to this blog found in this recent piece).

Fig. 1. Idealized natural resource management system adapted from Nielson 1999

Potential applications to natural resource management

Natural resource management, including water management, balances the needs of organisms, ecosystems and people (Fig. 1). Effective management occurs at the nexus of all three areas. Yet because many resource agencies are political, there are discrete time pressures on decisions. This could be because elected and appointed leaders hold power for only short periods, laws and regulations change alongside attitudes, political circumstances favor or preclude decision-making, or because an ecosystem or resource is collapsing in front of us. The time-sensitive nature of these decisions makes resource management agencies vulnerable to biases and issues associated with both thinking systems. Quality resource management might therefore hinge on a general ability to balance Systems 1 and 2 thinking.

It remains unclear how most extant water or conservation organizations lean disproportionately towards System 1 or 2 thinking. One might argue that, given their famously grinding speed, government organizations rely overly on System 2, perhaps to prepare for politically-opportune times or to avoid the controversy of actually making decisions. However, there are also abundant examples of government decisions being made rashly and without the time needed to fully appreciate key dynamics. The private sector ostensibly seems to favor System 1 for its faster decision-making and links to constantly changing financial markets. Yet it is also clear that most folks staking large sums of private capital on a venture extensively reason the issue from multiple angles before a risky decision. 

The value of two-way thinking

There is usefulness to both systems. Do we appreciate the value of both systems and find ways to organize and challenge ourselves and our organizations for the missing piece? For example, we need to organize our science and policy-makers to spend time on problems and solutions well in advance of short political windows of decision-making opportunity. This implies a need for greater organization of science syntheses to continually prepare policymakers for the types of decisions they will need to make over their tenure. Scheffer et al. 2013 articulates another undervalued benefit, specifically to slow decision making. That is, that many breakthroughs come outside the confines of the traditional workplace. By supplying enough time, stronger decisions might emerge through simple activities like dog walks, bowling adventures, or picnics where novel thoughts and conversations might take place. Can organizations and leaders deliberately generate the space for unstructured conversations and serendipity? Can this lead towards new compromises? New conservation and business successes? A recent survey of CEOs found that dealing with complexity was often identified as the greatest institutional challenge (Kleiman 2011). The CEOs then identified several directions for overcoming rising complexity; this included increasing creativity, increasing dexterity, and improving customer relationships. Yet budgeting time for developing these skills or encouraging person-to-person interactions are rarely prioritized in strategic plans or time planning exercises.

In many natural resource organizations, it probably helps to have people highly skilled in System 2 thinking. There are good reasons for System 1 thinking, but too often, it is simply wrong, and bad decisions can be avoided with a slower process. Perhaps there is not enough time to develop full blown science studies on a topic. Nonetheless, can we quickly summarize and synthesize previous scientific information from similar enough work to infuse elements of System 2 thinking into fast decision making? This is an advantage to having in-house science bureaus or R&D arms in organizations. And also a sad aspect to their (often hyperpolitical) demise. It is a challenge to have System 2 ecosystem management in a System 1 political world. 

Conversely, are there examples where we ‘research topics to death’? Clearly, the answer is yes. Perhaps what we really want is the ability to make decisions with System 2 thoroughness but with closer to System 1 speed. In California, we know the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is in a prolonged state of decline and the status quo is not working – at best. Time is increasingly limited before more species go extinct. More research along the lines of the last 40 years is unlikely to yield novel breakthrough information and abate the trajectory. More research is always needed, but more decisions are also needed – if they are the right decisions. However, it is challenging, especially given the ever-changing mix of system thinking needed for each problem and through time. This disorientation contributes to our bad intuition about probability, poor perception of time, and faulty decisions overall (Nowotny 2016). 

What can we do about all this?  Well, the adaptive cycle of natural resource management might be inevitable. We will need to experiment – a lot – and build on things that seem to work. Lund (2022) provides an overview for ‘rational water planning’, which is simply an in-depth look at one kind of System 2 approach. We can learn from prior experiments, even if they produced negative or null results. Large experiments, likely perceived to be ‘risky’, probably have a better chance at saving our California biodiversity, and to some extent us. To accomplish this, we will need well-trained scientists and managers skilled in System 2 to help design and monitor the great experiments of the future. We also need leaders unafraid and supported enough to pull the trigger on changing the status quo in a timely manner (i.e., those with an appreciation for the need to exercise System 1). Finally, we should expect the unexpected – and be prepared to try new experiments when the last great thing fails. 

Bog wetlands in the fall. Photo by Andrew Rypel

Andrew L. Rypel is a Professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair of coldwater fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.

Acknowledgements: I thank Jay Lund and Steve Carpenter who provided thoughts and comments on earlier versions of this essay.

Further Reading:

Glatzeder, B. 2011. Two modes of thinking: evidence from cross-cultural psychology. pp 233-247 in S. Han and E. Poppel, eds Cultural and neural frames of cognition and communication: on thinking. Springer, Berlin, Germany.

Kahneman, D. 2013. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY USA.

Kleiman, P. 2011. Learning at the edge of chaos. SISHE-J: The All Ireland Journal of TEaching and Learning in Higher Education 3: 62.1-62.11.

Lund, J. 2022. Approaches to water planning. https://californiawaterblog.com/2022/02/27/approaches-to-water-planning/

Newport, C. 2016. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY USA.

Nielson, L. A. 1999. History of inland fisheries management in North America. Pages 3-30 in C. C. Kohler, and W. A. Hubert, editors. Inland Fisheries Management in North America. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, MD USA.

Nowotny, H. 2016. The Cunning of Uncertainty. Wiley, Hoboken, NJ USA.

Rypel, A.L., P.B. Moyle, and J. Lund. 2021. A swiss cheese model for fish conservation in California. https://californiawaterblog.com/2021/01/24/a-swiss-cheese-model-for-fish-conservation-in-california/

Scheffer, M., J. Bascompte, T.K. Bjordam, S.R. Carpenter, L.B. Clarke, C. Folke, P. Marquet, N. Mazzeo, M. Meerhoff, O. Sala, and F.R. Westley. 2013. Dual thinking for scientists. Ecology and Society 20: 3.

Understanding noise in human judgements https://issues.org/tag/daniel-kahneman/

About andrewrypel

Andrew Rypel is an Associate Professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair of coldwater fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.
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2 Responses to Two-way thinking in natural resource management

  1. Mike says:

    Great thought regarding system 1 and system 2. What is left out in this discussion is the influence of $ on decision makers which to often are outside those who practice system 2. Those who are responsible for policy are those who focus on the now and dependent on the influence of those who can determine their future as policy makers!

    • andrewrypel says:

      Good point! Money almost certainly contributes to bias towards System 1 thinking. Indeed it is difficult to have System 2 ecosystem management in a System 1 political world.

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