The need for speed? How slowness has a value all of its own.

Human exploits in aviation have always been closely linked to our fascination for speed. We admire speed in its many guises and it remains a marker of achievement in almost any field you care to think of. A typist tapping at a keyboard; a child completing a jigsaw puzzle; a pianist playing an allegro; even reading a book in five days when it took your friend ten. Our association of speed with ability, intelligence and competence is deeply ingrained in us from an early age. Take yourself back to sitting in the school gym in exam season, looking up from half way through your maths paper to see that one classmate already setting down their pen and pushing back their chair with an hour still to run on the clock. Tell me you didn’t feel a combination of panic, envy, and self-doubt as you ran your eyes across all the questions you still hadn’t got to?

As a result of these associations we often couple up the idea of a quick response being a good response. For almost any kind of work output time is an important metric and, in most cases, the shorter the time something takes us, the more effective we are considered to be. We equate fast recall and response with cognitive ability, expertise, and experience. In aviation, just as in many other walks of life, we often assume the faster the better. We associate speed with competence.

I remember the first time I watched in awe as the hands of an experienced SAR pilot whirled around a myriad of buttons and switches in a bid to get a rescue helicopter turning, burning, and launched into the air in less than a couple of minutes. I wondered if I would ever master the highly choreographed cockpit ballet that mixes patterns and shapes into internalised motor programmes. It was beguiling, and it spoke of competence and confidence. 

If you still doubt this idea, let’s look at the opposite to speed. Slowness. “The quality or state of lacking intelligence or quickness of mind.”  (Merriam-Webster Thesaurus) This is one of its definitions, and it reveals the depth of prejudice that we harbour for doing things slowly. Listed synonyms include brainlessness, denseness, dim-wittedness, dopiness, dullness, foolishness, stupidity, weak-mindedness. They go on. It reflects a general consensus that if someone is slow they are probably not very bright.

Of course, sometimes, doing something slowly and deliberately has a virtue of its own. Slowness can be hard. It often takes significant mental self control. Japanese train drivers famously use the operating practice of Shisa Kanko (pointing and calling), a technique of pointing and verbalising to increase attention and awareness which has been found to reduce errors on the Japanese railways by 85%. It slows them down and forces them to be deliberate.

Slowing down is not just about reducing error rates however. In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist and author introduced us to the concept of fast and slow cognition in terms of two separate decision-making systems. Since the book and its core ideas have gained in popularity it is now commonly introduced to crews in CRM training as a way of understanding how we take decisions under different circumstances. 

In the popular science book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell picks up on the theme of instinctive or intuitive rapid decision-making. It is subtitled “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” and starts by recounting anecdotes that demonstrate the power of intuitive decision-making. He explains how we make rapid snap decisions all the time, often based on tiny amounts of information which he calls “thin-slicing”, and argues that decisions made quickly can be as good (and often even better) than decisions made after a thorough and deliberate thinking process. In CRM training these concepts have often been introduced as Recognition Primed Decision Making (Gary Klein) where instinctive decisions driven by the recognition of tiny cues and clues that are inaccessible to conscious mental processes, are based in deep expertise or years of experience.

Perhaps the most important point that Gladwell has to make in Blink is the importance of understanding when and why we take decisions in this way. There is a time for thinking fast, and there is a time for thinking slow. In CRM we often talk about these themes in the context of decision-making and controlling error, but they are also particularly relevant to how we handle startle effect or extreme stress responses.

Gladwell illustrates his book with examples from law enforcement and the impact of extreme arousal in shooting scenarios. He cites research from studies on marksmen which has demonstrated an optimum state of arousal – the range in which stress improves performance – when the heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute. Above 145 beats per minute the negative effects of stress kick in, vision becomes restricted, and complex motor skills start to break down.  By 175 beats a complete breakdown in cognitive processes has been demonstrated. These failures in our capacity for rapid cognition caused by extreme arousal (what Gladwell calls mind blindness) are subtle, complex and surprisingly common.

However, Blink concludes with the assertion that these episodes are neither inevitable nor incurable. Stress inoculation training in combination with real world experience can fundamentally change the way we react to an acute stress encounter.  So how can we learn to control our thinking processes?

Recent research from Delft University studied the effectiveness of different stress response control techniques for direct application in the cockpit. (Managing startle and surprise in the cockpit.) It is no coincidence that all of them start by addressing the need to slow down and take control of our cognitive processes. But the most significant finding of the Dutch researchers was that even after teaching and getting pilots to apply a procedure specifically aimed at helping their startle response, they were often unable to apply this procedure in the face of a stressful situation. Instead, they had a tendency to fall back on intuitive responses even where these were inappropriate. They were unable to slow down their fast thinking. Training ourselves to slow down is not easy under any circumstances, but particularly under conditions of stress it takes deliberate practice.

Let’s return to address the unassailable prestige of speed over slowness that we started with. What if we could disassociate the idea of slowness with incompetence? What if instructors were made to teach the opposite? What if we came to associate a slow response with higher skill levels and greater professionalism?

What if we came to associate a slow response with higher skill levels and greater professionalism?

In emergency scenarios the subconscious culture of speed creates a false need for haste in 99% of our responses. Even in the most serious emergencies that are thrown at us by a simulator instructor such as a requirement to land immediately is still unlikely to suffer a worse outcome owing to a few more seconds of well-spent slowness. For all the rest, slowness should be positively promoted and rewarded as a demonstration of competency. The history of aviation is littered with examples of accidents where less than considered responses lead to disaster. Yet still we associate a prompt diagnosis and response to a problem in the cockpit with technical understanding, fluency, and competence.

As we’d do well to remember when thousands of feet up in the air, evolution works on the principle of survival of the fittest, not the fastest.

“When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.”

(Milan Kundera, Slowness, 1996).

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