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Emergency decision-making

You have now been introduced to the concept of rational decision-making and seen that in many situations this may not be the strategy most often adopted.

In fact, it has been known for some time now that human decision-making involves a fair degree of instinctual behaviour, which is hard-wired into our brains.

Daniel Kahneman (2011) identified that the majority of our decision-making uses quick-acting, intuitive processes (System 1 thinking) supported by a slower, more cognitively strenuous contribution (System 2 thinking). His suggestion is that trying harder to use the more effortful, rational process yields better quality decisions.

This is countered by Gerd Gigerenzer, who suggests that this two-stage model is an over-simplification and that ‘gut feeling’ or heuristics is a vital part of the decision-making process.

In contrast to the widely held view that less complex processing necessarily reduces accuracy, the analytical and empirical analyses of fast and frugal heuristics demonstrate that less information and computation can in fact improve accuracy (Gigerenzer, Hertwig & Pachur 2011).

These theories lend themselves quite nicely to the world of emergency decision-making, where there is a lack or perceived lack of time and the impact of getting things wrong is significant. In essence, the emergency manager does not have or does not feel as if they have sufficient time to go through a stepped, time hungry process of issue identification, options evaluation and selection. Not only that, but such a system goes against the natural grain; a temptation to act. This inherent desire to act is a product of the heuristic thought process and is incredibly effective.

Examples of heuristics can be seen in work by Ian McCammon (2002). He describes a number of reasons why experienced back-country (off-piste) skiers became involved in snow-slide accidents despite having been trained in avalanche awareness (see below). His conclusion is that the people involved instinctively decided to override certain rational risk assessment processes, the result of which was injury and in some cases death.

Types of heuristics influencing risk decision-making include:

  • familiarity: with place or situation
  • acceptance: group pressure
  • commitment: consistency with previous experience
  • expert halo: charisma or knowledge (power)
  • scarcity: rarity of the situation
  • social proof: risky shift

In a similar way, the gut feeling response of the incident commander is also based upon a number of attributes including technical knowledge, training, experience, practical skills, stress, fatigue and sound situation awareness. This final element is crucial. As we shall see, matching a partially complete plan with a less than clear understanding of the situation is the main reason why emergency managers sometimes get their decisions wrong.

Let us look at how you make decisions and see where you are being rational or intuitive.

Your task

Imagine that you are buying a used car worth £2000, for which you are taking out a car loan.

Which elements of your decision-making follow the rational decision-making typology suggested previously and which elements are instinctual/gut feelings?


Gigerenzer, G., Hertwig, R., and Pachur, T. (2011) Heuristics: The Foundations of Adaptive Behaviour. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Kanheman D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

McCammon, I. (2002) ‘Evidence of Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents’. in Proceedings ISSW. held 2002. 244-251

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This article is from the free online course:

Emergency Management: Risk, Incidents and Leadership

Coventry University