We have not one but two thinking systems in our heads. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economics, dubs them System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, automatic, energy efficient, subconscious, and always on. We don’t think about it; it thinks for us. Some observers claim that System 1 makes 95% of our decisions. We merrily mosey along, not even aware that we’re making decisions.
We are, on the other hand, aware of System 2. When we think about thinking, we’re thinking about System 2. It’s our conscious self. It’s where we consider ideas, weigh evidence, and reach conclusions. Unfortunately, System 2 is an energy hog so we use it sparingly. Like other forms of exercise, System 2 requires effort, practice, and discipline. It’s hard.
We get by most of the time on System 1. Usually that’s fine – System 1 makes a lot of good decisions. But not all the time. System 1 produces biases like stereotyping, temporizing, risk aversion, and unbridled fear. If we don’t have an effective, well-tuned System 2 to overcome those biases, we can do a lot of damage to ourselves and others.
Maria Konnikova (pictured), in her lovely book, Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, compares System 1 to Watson and System 2 to Holmes. System Watson represents “…our naïve selves, operating by the lazy thought habits … that we’ve spent our whole lives acquiring….” On the other hand, System Holmes, represents “… our aspirational selves, the selves that we’ll be once we’re done learning how to apply his method of thinking to our everyday lives and, in so doing break the habits of our Watson system once and for all.”
System Watson comes to us naturally. System Holmes needs to be learned, practiced, and mastered. As Konnikova notes, “…to break from that autopiloted [Watson] mode, we have to be motivated to think in a mindful, present fashion, to exert effort on what goes through our heads instead of going with the flow.”
David Brooks, in the Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, describes our bias towards the conscious mind (System 2): “The conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species. Unaware of what is going on deep down inside, the conscious mind assigns itself the starring role. It gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn’t really control.”
Brooks compares the conscious mind to ”… a general atop a platform, who sees the world from a distance and analyzes things linearly and linguistically….” The unconscious mind, “…is like a million little scouts [that] … careen across the landscape, sending back a constant flow of signals and generating instant responses. They maintain no distance from the environment, but are immersed in it. They scurry about, interpenetrating other minds, landscapes, and ideas.”
For Brooks, the individual is the star in the “outer mind”. In contrast, “… the inner mind highlights the power of relationships and the invisible bonds between people. If the outer mind hungers for status, money, and applause, the inner mind hungers for harmony and connection….”
From Kahneman, we learn about the native biases of System 1 and an important implication: we’re not rational when it comes to economic matters. This is the insight that won the Nobel Prize. From Konnikova, we learn how to observe and deduce. The implication: with sufficient motivation, we can indeed learn to overcome our biases. From Brooks, we learn that System 2 is an individualist while System 1 is a collectivist. The implication: this duality is an important source of tension in the body politic.
What else can we learn by comparing System 1 to System 2? Let’s talk more about that tomorrow.