26 July, 2013, by Paul Yeomans

Funding fast and slow…

A couple of people in the office have been reading/talking about Thinking Fast and Slow, a book by Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman. There is a good deal in the book that has direct relevance to writing successful funding applications (something I spend a good deal of my time doing here at the University)

Kahneman breaks down thinking into 2 modes or systems. Slow thinking is deliberate and conscious, and we naturally feel as though we are in control of it (Kahneman refers to it as System 2). System 2 is in play when we actively consider what we want to have for dinner tonight, or when we choose what stocks to buy, or when we perform a mathematical calculation. System 1, by contrast, is automatic and unconscious, and hums along continuously in the background. We would typically use System 1 when we make snap, instinctive decisions about whether a briefly-seen face is friendly or not. Kahneman suggests that System 1 thinking is involuntary and instinctive; it’s the default setting for your brain.

So what does this mean for your next funding application?

Every application form will be read by one or a panel of assessors. Each of them will have their own foibles and pet hates, but there are some things you can do to avoid having them pick your proposal apart:

Every funding proposal will have errors in it or contentious issues that an assessor might pick up on. During the typical proposal development phase you’d hope to spot 50% of them on reviewing a full draft. Perhaps then over the next two or three iterations you and the team might pick up another 25%. But there is 25% that between you you’ll probably never spot, or fail to spot in a reasonable timeframe. That means that your lovely completed proposal May have 25% of its original errors intact when it lands on the assessor’s desk.

The key to success in this case is ensuring that you let the assessor use as much System 1 thinking as possible and force them to engage as little System 2 as possible, thus spotting the smallest possible number of your remaining errors or contentious issues:

Consider the form as a whole not just the individual sections. It has a narrative, and it will probably be read in order. Is it easy to understand what you want to do right at the start? Is your title totally clear and unambiguous? If not, revise it. This has added significance because of what Kahneman calls the ‘Halo effect’: He realized in his teaching that when he asked students to write two essays as part of a timed examination, there was a correlation between the scores each student got for each of their essays, namely students that did well in the first essay tended to do well in the second. However, when he assessed all the first essay questions for his whole class together, and then all the second essay questions together he realized that individuals scores were highly divergent. This means that his assessment of the second question was heavily biased by the work of the same student that immediate preceded it.

The impact for funding proposals is that if you get the early sections wrong, it’s largely irrelevant what is in the later stages – you will have lost the assessor, and more to the point they will be engaging System 2 thinking at every line you have written subsequently to spot more errors. And as we saw above, there will be errors, and they will spot some of them.

In the next blog post I’ll look at some more positive steps you can take to avoid too much system two thinking in your assessors and ensure that your funding bid is successful.

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