How time pressure improves decision making in emergencies

A new simulation of a complex, realistic disaster event suggests that time pressure facilitates better decision-making among emergency responders. The two-day training exercise, overseen by Liverpool’s Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology, looked at the impact of a hypothetical aeroplane crash over a city. Nearly two hundred professionals were split into different rooms based on the agency they belonged to (14 agencies in all, including police, transport, health and science advisors), and each received realistic data according to their function.

As casualty data trickled into the Ambulance Room, did this give a clue to the cause of the crash? Could terrorism be ruled out? Would the hospital suffer outages, given damage to a power station? These were some of the considerations the teams had to contend with.

The researchers focused on six critical issues identified by a panel of experts as being key, and as emblematic of the wider challenge of the exercise as a whole: effective cross-agency collaboration.

Results showed that when issues needed responses from more than two agencies, successful action was actually more likely when there was a sense of time pressure. When this was missing, communication efforts were squandered as workers gathered more and more information from within their agency, as opposed to coordinating decisions and actions with other agencies.

Why did time pressure improve emergency responders’ decision making and communication? It has to do with the way that human beings avoid tough choices when we can – anticipated regret is a powerful deterrent. But imperfect decisions can actually be better than none: once initiated they can be monitored, evaluated and altered, whereas inaction begets inaction. In addition, a deferred decision may continue to eat up mental resources, making other decisions more difficult.

Evidence from this new field of “naturalistic decision making” suggests that time pressure leads experts into accurate intuitive “pattern-matching”. The “natural state” of expert decision-making involves leaps between decision stages rather than examination of every possibility, and time pressure encourages these leaps (or pattern matches).

One of the crisis issues – the handover of disaster management from emergency services to the local authority – had no clear deadlines attached. But in this case, the strategy unit had set the handover as a clear overarching goal, which led to more effective communication on this issue, including less in-agency discussion (less back-covering and abstract debate, perhaps), and more time engaging with other agencies. Even though the handover was required in the later recovery phase, the group were already planning and building contingencies during the initial response phase.

The message for organisations, then, is that human beings are tempted to delay when it’s most vital to act, thanks to anticipated regret. This is “The Psychology of Doing Nothing”.  Clearly articulated strategic goals are one way to stave this off. When it comes to time boundaries, the authors consider these “difficult to influence.” But artificial deadlines, or making unstated ones more explicit, may be useful ways to keep the urgency in the emergency services.


Alison, L., Power, N., van den Heuvel, C., Humann, M., Palasinksi, M., & Crego, J. (2015). Decision inertia: Deciding between least worst outcomes in emergency responses to disasters Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology DOI: 10.1111/joop.12108

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.