Decoding HR Decision-Making: The Neuroscience of Choice

5 Oct, 2023 •

Decoding HR Decision-Making: The Neuroscience of Choice

Exploring the Two Systems of Thinking and Their Impact on HR Recruitment Strategies

Welcome to the first episode of #neuroscienceinsights, where we explore the science that guides our choices. In the limitless labyrinth of the human mind, decision-making is a fundamental process that shapes our daily performance at work. Varying from the simple job-related choices we make daily to the decisive decisions defining our own or other people’s career paths. In this blog post, we dig into the fascinating world of neuroscience to gain insights into HR decision-making, drawing from the groundbreaking work of Daniel Kahneman, as presented in his bestseller book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

The Two Systems of Thinking

The Nobel laureate began his research in the late 1960s. He introduces us to two distinct systems of thinking that govern our decision-making processes: the so-called System 1 and System 2.

  • System 1: This is the fast, intuitive, and automatic mode of thinking. It operates effortlessly and rapidly, allowing us to make quick decisions based on intuition and past experiences. System 1 helps us navigate familiar situations with ease, such as recognizing a colleague’s face or executing routine calculations.
  • System 2: When faced with complex problems or unfamiliar situations, System 2 kicks in. In contrast, System 2 is the slow, deliberate, and analytical mode of thinking. It requires conscious effort and mental energy. This system enables us to process information more deeply, evaluate alternatives, and make thoughtful decisions. This is more time-consuming.

Neuroscientific Insights into System 1

Neuroscience, the study of the brain and its functions, has been instrumental in unraveling the mysteries behind the complex process of decision-making. From this angle, it is interesting to understand the role of different brain parts in decision-making. System 1, our fast-thinking mode, is deeply rooted in our brain’s evolutionary history. It is designed for survival and efficiency. Especially the modern agile work cultures require this kind of fast-paced behavior. Not everyone is a fast thinker and jobs that require this skill can be frustrating for the System 2-‘naturals’. Here are some neuroscientific insights into how System 1 operates:

  • The Amygdala: This almond-shaped structure deep within the brain, often called the reptilian brain, is responsible for processing emotions, particularly fear and pleasure. It plays a crucial role in System 1 by quickly assessing the emotional significance of stimuli. When faced with a potential threat, the amygdala triggers a rapid fight-or-flight response without conscious thought, demonstrating the automatic nature of System 1.
  • Pattern Recognition: The brain is a pattern-recognition machine, and System 1 excels at recognizing familiar patterns, which is essential for quick decision-making. This ability to recognize patterns allows us to effortlessly understand language, interpret facial expressions, and navigate our environment.

Working in a medical emergency room, as a bartender behind a popular cocktail bar, or on an options trader floor is typically depending a lot on System “Fast”. The recruitment process typically leans towards this rapid mode of decision-making. Whenever you have a role to fill, you either post an ad or source for candidates that fit a specific list of requirements. The jobs you fill vary, but once you get going muscle memory usually kicks in and you run through the same tried and tested tactics, often on autopilot.

Neuroscientific Insights into System 2

While System 1 operates automatically and intuitively, System 2 involves deliberate cognitive processing. Here are some neuroscientific insights into how System 2 functions:

  • The Prefrontal Cortex: The headquarters of System 2 thinking is located in the frontal lobes of the brain. It is responsible for complex cognitive functions such as planning, organizing, problem-solving, and decision-making. When you’re carefully weighing the pros and cons of a major company decision, your prefrontal cortex is hard at work.
  • Energy Consumption: System 2 thinking consumes a significant amount of energy compared to System 1. This is why prolonged, deep thinking can be mentally exhausting. Our brain allocates resources judiciously, shifting between these systems based on the demands of the task at hand.

Examples are looking for a colleague in a conference crowd, parking a van in a tight space, or determining the quality-to-value ratio of your canteen lunch. Fewer recruiting teams move “slowly”. Slow isn’t a measure of speed, it’s indicative of a different objective. There isn’t an immediate role to fill. The goal is to find “quality” candidates to add to your pipeline. Job ads fill roles, but they don’t work for this kind of recruiting. Here, proactive sourcing is the answer. “Slow” recruiting is strategic, you’re searching for candidates that could make a “10x” impact in your organization.

The Interplay of Systems 1 and 2 – Biases, Learning, and Multitasking

Understanding the interplay between these two thinking systems is crucial for comprehending how we make decisions. System 1 serves as our rapid decision-maker, helping us make countless choices effortlessly. However, it’s not infallible and can lead to cognitive biases and errors. System 2 acts as a check-and-balance mechanism, stepping in when necessary to override automatic responses and engage in more deliberate, thoughtful decision-making.

System 2 also comes into play whenever you learn something new, like when starting a new job or role. In the beginning, every choice you make, like distinguishing between important and less important tasks or deciding how to complete simple administrative processes, is very conscious and takes a lot of focus and concentration. Once you get used to your new job, these processes get automated and shifted to system 1, which is evolutionarily valuable and efficient as it saves you a lot of energy. Now, there’s space again for fresh input and learning new things. This transition from conscious effort to automation exemplifies the brain’s remarkable adaptability and capacity to optimize decision-making processes.

Some bad news here for multitasking lovers. In fact, research suggests that multitasking can be detrimental to productivity and efficiency because it often results in reduced quality and increased errors. Multitasking, a common challenge in our fast-paced world, highlights the intricate balance between System 1 and System 2 thinking. Typically, our cognitive resources are limited, and we excel at focusing on one task at a time. However, the secret to effective multitasking lies in automating routine or simple tasks to the point where System 1 can handle them effortlessly, freeing up System 2 for more demanding activities.

Best of Both Worlds – Optimize your Recruiting Strategy by Combining Systems 1 and 2

The science of decision-making, as illuminated by neuroscience and popularized by Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” reveals the impressing complexity of the human mind. You’d think that you’re more of a commanding officer who’s always in control but in reality, most of us are thinking based on Systems 1. “Fast” recruiting will usually be a company’s bread and butter, most teams are set up to run this system. Ideally, though, your company should use a blended approach that includes some strategic pipeline building. This helps to future-proof your company and ensures that you’re well-stocked with talent for future roles.

It underscores that our decisions are not solely products of reason or intuition but are shaped by the dynamic interplay between two distinct thinking systems. Contact our strategic experts to optimize your recruiting strategy. As we continue our journey into the fascinating world of the brain and cognition in future episodes of #neuroscienceinsights, we’ll explore a diverse range of topics that promise to unravel the mysteries of the human mind. Stay tuned for more insights from the realm of neuroscience!