Small Wars Journal

The Role of Judgment (Part 2)

Fri, 07/14/2017 - 1:33pm

The Role of Judgment (Part 2)

Carey Walker and Matthew Bonnot


After reading part one, the reader has a working definition of judgment, understands the relationship between intuitive (System 1) and deliberate (System 2) thinking, recognizes the two categories of intuition (expert and heuristic) and, most importantly, knows the situations where judgment can fail. They are now ready for the key take away from part two, how do you improve your judgment?

Based on our research and experience, we provide two primary approaches for improving one’s judgment. The first deals with awareness and intervention, i.e., a preemptive approach, and highlights red flags that warn of potential problem areas. The second is a developmental approach that enhances intuitive and deliberate reasoning skills by expanding one’s experience base.

How Do We Improve Our Judgment?

Given the propensity for mistakes in both intuitive and deliberate judgments, what can we do to arm ourselves against these inevitable shortfalls?  Based on our research and experience, we see two primary approaches for improving one’s judgment. The first deals with awareness and intervention, i.e., a preemptive approach, and highlights red flags that warn of potential problem areas. The second is a developmental approach that enhances intuitive and deliberate reasoning skills by expanding one’s experience base.

Preemptive Approach – Awareness and Intervention. It does little good to correct one’s judgment in an ongoing situation after the fact. To be successful in meeting an existing challenge, we must be armed with critical indicators that let us know when something is amiss in our thinking.

Intuitive Judgment.  The challenge with intuition is that it works primarily on “auto pilot” with most activities occurring below the level of consciousness. The indicators or red flags we highlight, however, are easy to see if you know what to look for.

1. Surprise.[47] Mark this with an asterisk because it is by far the most important indicator that System 1 thinking needs help. When your brain cannot make a logical and coherent story out of the events unfolding around you, it registers surprise. This emotional reaction means your intuitive judgment has hit a brick wall, you most likely lack situational understanding, and you need help from System 2.  You have two choices. One is to back up, slow down, and reconsider the situation using an analytical approach to reasoning. The other is to allow your heuristic intuition to take over, which it is more than happy to do. It will match the situation to your experience base until it comes up with an associated mental shortcut to address the issue, though you might not like the results.

2. Complexity/Instability. We know System 1 requires a stable and consistent environment to recognize cues and effectively draw upon past experiences. If the situation or problem you face has no clear causal relationships, your skilled intuition will not work. Consider the following example. Your battalion has been in country less than two weeks and you, as the battalion XO, are hosting your first meeting with tribal leaders. The setting is chaotic with lots of yelling and raised voices. Your first instinct is to shut down all conversation and establish some semblance of order. What do you do? Do you trust your intuitive judgment or do you back up and regroup?

3. Lack of Experience. How do you know when you are in over your head? Your heuristic intuition will do its best to make sense of a situation with what little experience you have. The real issue is your level of self-awareness. Are you facing a situation in which you have little or no experience? Are you willing to put your ego on hold and ask for help from your boss, peers, or subordinates? The challenge is not so much acknowledging one’s lack of experience; it is acknowledging the need for help.

Deliberate Judgment.[48]  From a cognitive perspective, we know that System 2 has the final word on all judgments and decisions though it tends to rubber stamp our intuitive actions.  When we do engage in deliberate thinking, how do we avoid the pitfalls of cognitive biases and group thinking discussed earlier? The following are indicators or red flags of potential problem areas.

1. Poor Organizational Culture and Climate. It is extremely difficult to identify one’s own cognitive biases because they are so closely linked with the heuristics, i.e., mental shortcuts, which guide intuitive thinking. We need help from others to recognize errors in our thinking and that rarely happens in organizations that lack a culture of learning and a supportive command climate that encourages open and frank discourse. If your organization lacks these characteristics, then the chances of getting honest developmental feedback are slim.[49]

2. Anomalies in Mental Simulation. As you recall, skilled intuitors use a two-phased approach to applying judgment.  They begin with System 1 to recognize cues or patterns in the environment. The cues access information stored in memory that serves as a potential solution to the issue at hand.  In the second phase of this approach, the skilled intuitor uses System 2 thinking to assess the merits of the proposed action with a process called mental simulation. If the proposed action violates expectations, meaning it could lead to unanticipated results, we consider this an anomaly – a red flag.  It is easy to ignore anomalies, especially if they appear small. Consider the following.

S3: “Sir, what is your intent for this operation?”

Commander: “Look, we’ve done this before. The mission is practically identical to the operation we did last month. Pull out and update the last FRAGO we used. Keep the same concept of operation.”

Should the S3 be concerned? What did the boss mean when he said “practically?”

3. Loss of Self-Control. The last red flag for deliberate judgments is probably the easiest for others to spot and the hardest for the user to admit, the loss of self-control. By self-control we mean the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thinking, and behavior,[50] typically in high stress situations but also in the face of temptation. When emotions become charged or ego depletion rears its head, System 2 thinking often falls by the wayside.  System 1 is quick to step in with heuristic intuition powered by any number of cognitive biases. The best solution is to embrace the counsel of more level-headed peers or followers if you have set the conditions for others to have a voice in the organization.

Developmental Approach – Learn like an Expert. How do you teach a process – intuitive judgment – that occurs below one’s level of consciousness?  You don’t. Trying to teach intuition would be a fool’s errand, but what you can do is set the conditions for intuitive and deliberate judgment to thrive in an organization by expanding the experience base of the members through a leader development process.[51]  

Intuitive Judgment.  We might not be able to teach people to think like experts but, according to Gary Klein,[52] we can teach them to learn like experts by incorporating ideas from Anders Ericsson’s research on developing expertise.[53] The fundamental principle that bounds expert judgment is that people learn from experience. Researchers call this experiential learning, the construction of knowledge and meaning from real-life activities and events.[54] Mastering these activities is a two-part process that focuses on deliberate practice and feedback.

1. Deliberate Practice. What do you need to do to be successful in your job in both garrison and the field? You need to practice…with a purpose. Deliberate practice “entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all.”[55]  Think about this. We tend to practice what we are good at doing and avoid the hard stuff whether it is writing papers, speaking in public, or leading a problem-solving process. Deliberate practice means identifying what you (and your subordinates) need to work on and formulating a plan for making it happen with goals and evaluation criteria.   

2. Feedback. Practice is only as good as the coaching and feedback you receive. To improve at a task or activity, you need to be observed. The observer needs to give you constructive and timely feedback as part of a two-way dialogue. You must be able to apply the feedback through repeated repetitions until you demonstrate you have mastered the skill. Expanding one’s expertise is a demanding process, but the benefit is that it helps tip the “intuition scale” away from the heuristics side of thinking to the skilled side, which is always good.

Deliberate Judgment.[56] To improve deliberate judgment, we offer two approaches. First, we consider an organizational perspective and discuss the importance of setting conditions for deliberate thinking to thrive. Second, we look at the challenges with improving problem solving and comparative analysis processes within organizations.

1. Learning Organizations. If deliberate judgment is going to thrive at a collective level within an organization, discussions require brutal honesty, debate, and conflict. This scares many leaders, especially those that have never been exposed to a culture of learning and a supportive command climate that fosters mutual trust and psychological safety. Once an individual has worked in a learning organization, however, it is hard to go back because the only learning that occurs in non-learning organizations is as a byproduct of bad leadership. 

2. Collective Judgment.  While a learning organization is a prerequisite for developing effective collective judgment within an organization, it is not the only requirement. A commitment to learning by the leadership means establishing regular classes, instruction, and practice sessions on problem solving and comparative analysis. The MDMP process is not easy, and to get good at it takes deliberate practice, a process just as applicable to groups as it is to individuals. Developing collective judgment is a major commitment within organizations and requires deliberate role modeling, teaching, and coaching by the leadership.[57]


We covered a lot of ground in this article (Parts 1 & 2) and it is easy to get lost in the weeds. Let’s review some key ideas:

  • Judgment is an informed opinion that uses intuitive and deliberate thinking to evaluate situations and draw conclusions. We use judgment as a foundation for making choices, which leads to decision making.
  • We use two forms of thinking when forming our judgment, System 1, which is intuitive thought, and System 2, which is deliberate or rational thought.  Our default setting for thinking is System 1 because intuition is fast, effortless, and automatic. System 2, as the conscious portion of cognition, is the “watchdog” for the overall judgment and decision making process though it typically sits in the background and takes little action beyond acknowledging the work of System 1.
  • We can further divide intuition into two categories, expert (skilled) and heuristic.  We all want (or should want) expert intuition, but it requires years of study and dedicated practice. Heuristic intuition helps fill the expert intuition void by using mental shortcuts or “rules of thumb,” closely tied to our mental models and personal beliefs, to simplify and streamline problems. 
  • Our judgment can backfire in a number of ways. Overconfidence jeopardizes both forms of intuition though it weighs most heavily on the expert side. Heuristics can easily transition into cognitive biases if practitioners are not wary. Deliberate judgments, which rely greatly on collective or group actions, suffer in organizations with non-learning cultures and poor command climates. 
  • The primary way to preempt flaws in judgment is to recognize the red flags that warn of potential problem areas. For intuitive thinking, they are Surprise, Complex and Unstable Environments, and Lack of Experience. For deliberate thinking, they are Poor Organizational Culture and Climate, Anomalies in Mental Simulation, and Loss of Self-Control.
  • Leaders can set the conditions for intuitive and deliberate judgment to thrive in organizations by expanding the experience base of the members through a leader development process.

Final Thoughts

As we researched this article (Parts 1 & 2) and reflected on our own thinking, we were surprised by the expansive nature of heuristic intuition.  We use these mental shortcuts throughout the day and never give it a second thought. The vast majority of the time, they work wonders for us by taking our experience (as limited as it might be) and aligning it with mental models on how we think the world operates to produce simple rules of thumb for assessing situations and forming opinions.  Because of System 1’s supreme confidence, we rarely feel the need to stop, take a breath, and re-analyze a situation. This, we think, is the most problematic area of judgment because it is where we are most vulnerable. With our heuristic intuition, we are assured and confident in our conclusions and have no inkling we could be stepping off a cliff.  As Daniel Kahneman reminds us, it is extremely hard to police our own intuition.[58]  But when the stakes are high and we feel extremely confident in our judgment, we need to slow down, step back, and reflect on the wisdom of Lieutenant General Hal Moore. He had an old adage he often shared in public speaking engagements: “There is always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor.” It served him well in the Ia Drang Valley and is sage advice for rousing our System 2 thinking and putting it to work in time of need. 

End Notes (Continued From Part 1)

[47] We debated listing the lack of situational awareness (SA) and situational understanding (SU) as red flag indictors of judgment errors, but concluded it did not make sense. How do you know you lack SA or SU? Typically, it is when bad things start to happen during an operation and you are surprised. Gaining and then maintaining SU is a continuous challenge for military leaders involving the integration of operational and mission variables using both intuitive and deliberate thought. There is no quick fix to ensure success, but there are indicators of potential failure with the number one red flag being surprise. For this reason, we felt that designating “surprise” as the primary indicator for a shortfall in judgment made much more sense than a generic listing of “Poor SA and SU.”

[48] Though we did not list these factors a second time, the issues of surprise, complexity/instability, and experience shortfalls influence deliberate judgment as well as intuitive judgment. The difference is you should be better prepared to deal with these factors using deliberate reasoning, especially from a collective perspective. Therefore, we do not consider them red flags for potential failures in deliberate judgment.

[49] Walker and Bonnot, “Improving While Operating: The Paradox of Learning,” 4.

[50] “,” accessed May 10, 2017,

[51] This section provides a short overview of a successful leader development process. To learn more, see the following article: Carey Walker and Matthew Bonnot, “A Better Approach to Developing Leaders,” Army Press Online Journal, April 15, 2016, APOJ 16-16,

[52] Klein, Sources of Power, 104.

[53] Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely, 115-121.

[54] Sharan B. Merriam and Rosemary S. Caffarella, Learning in Adulthood, 2nd ed., (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999), 221-230. 

[55] Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely, 118.

[56] Our focus in this section is on the organization as a whole and collective actions of groups. The developmental actions for individuals from a deliberate thinking perspective are similar to the developmental actions listed under intuitive thinking.

[57] Carey Walker and Matthew Bonnot, “Understanding Organizational Culture and Climate,” Army Press Online Journal, July 8, 2016, APOJ 16-29,

[58] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 417.


About the Author(s)

Carey W. Walker is an assistant professor in the Department of Command and Leadership at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS.  He retired from the U.S. Army in 2004 as a Lieutenant Colonel after serving 24 years in various infantry and staff assignments in the U.S. and overseas.  He holds a B.A. from Rutgers University and an M.S. from Kansas State University.

Matthew J. Bonnot is an assistant professor in the Department of Command and Leadership at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS.  He retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2011 as a Colonel after 25 years active duty.  He holds a B.S. from the University of Central Missouri, an M.S. from Boston University, and an M.A. from the College of Naval Warfare.