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Muscle Memory

Learning to ride a bike is hard work.  New bike riders crash easily and wobble all over the place as they pedal down the road.  Until one day. Suddenly it becomes second nature.  We ride the bike without thinking about it.  Even if we haven’t been on a bike for years we can be riding like a pro almost immediately.

This ability is often referred to as developing muscle memory or becoming second nature.  More accurately, it is referred to as motor learning or developing procedural memory.  The capacity resides in the brain not in the muscles.

Cognitive scientists explain this ability with the theory that we have two separate cognitive systems that underlie how our brains operate (Evans, 2003) .   They refer to these as System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is a rapid, largely subconscious form of cognition that manages sensory inputs, performs instinctive behaviors, and remembers how to ride a bike.  System 2 is the rational calculating form of thinking.  When presented with new and novel stimuli or situations it works slowly and sequentially.  System 1 has massive capacity to handle inputs and make decisions quickly while System 2 has very limited capacity, works slowly and is very analytical. 

So, what does learning how to ride a bicycle have to do with decision making in a business environment?

The answer is that they both rely on the interplay of our System 1 and System 2 brain.  When we make business decisions, we tend to believe that our analytical mind (System 2) is clinically analyzing large amounts of information to find the best answer.  Studies have demonstrated that this is not what is happening.  We believe that we are performing rational analysis but, for the most part, our System 2 mind is only focused on rationalizing the information that is presented to it by our System 1 mind.

The more experienced we become in our job, the more things that will be handled by our powerful but intuitive System 1 mind.

 The more experienced we become in our job, the more things that will be handled by System 1.  When dealing with business decisions System 1, acting subconsciously, reviews large amounts of information, and selects what to pass on to System 2 for analysis.  It therefore affects the decisions we make by quickly scanning alternatives and then proposing answers.  Our analytical System 2 mind doesn’t analyze the proposed answer in detail.  Instead it evaluates it to see if it is a reasonable answer.  If it is, it adopts it with little consideration.  So, in these situations we leap to conclusions under the strong influence of our System 1 mind.   

How does this influence decisions in a business environment?  Don’t the more extended decision processes that we have implemented result in full analysis of options, evaluation of alternative ideas, and extensive deliberation to make the best decision possible?

In many cases that isn’t what happens.  Even in a group environment we are still controlled by our System 1 / System 2 cognitive system.  We have a decision that we have rationalized and, because of that, we are slow to change our mind.  Our first defense to other opinions is that we tend to only follow and internalize information that supports our decision.  If contrary information is presented it is ignored or actively rebutted.  This is called confirmation bias.  We tend to stick with our original decision, filtering out negative information and remembering positive information. 

This is not to suggest that we never change our mind, but studies have shown convincingly that, when making decisions, we quickly get invested in a solution and then consciously and subconsciously provide a higher weighting to information that justifies that solution. 

Research has identified that about 50% of business decisions end in failure (Nutt, 1996).  Part of the reason for this is that there is a mismatch between the rational processes that we believe are in place to support decision making and the actual human processes that are affecting the outcome.  In many organizations, this leads to decision processes that are consciously or unconsciously gamed to give a desired result rather than the best result. 

In organizations, the way that individuals make decisions is only one aspect that impacts decision making.  Beyond System 1/System 2 thinking are individual cognitive biases, group dynamics, cultural biases, and business practices that all impact decision making.

Many people, when asked, identify that they believe they and their organizations make pretty good decisions.  When pressed, very few can come up with any evidence beyond the observation that things have worked out okay so far.

The question for you and your organization is how do you know that the right decisions are being made in your organization.  How are cognitive biases, group dynamics, and cultural biases being controlled for across all the different types of decisions that are being made at all different levels in the organization?


Evans, J. S. (2003, October). In two minds: dual-process accounts of reasoning. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, p. Vol 7 No. 10.

Nutt, P. (1996, July 12). ABOUT HALF OF BUSINESS DECISIONS END IN FAILURE, STUDY FINDS. Retrieved from Research News: http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/baddec.htm