Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

dual processing theory

Two Brains. So What?

Alas, poor System 1...

Alas, poor System 1…

We have two different thinking systems in our brain, often called System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast and automatic and makes up to 95% of our decisions. System 2 is a slow energy hog that allows us to think through issues consciously. When we think of thinking, we’re thinking of System 2.

You might ask: Why would this matter to anyone other than neuroscientists? It’s interesting to know but does it have any practical impact? Well, here are some things that we might want to change based on the dual-brain idea.

Economic theory – our classic economic theories depend on the notion of rational people making rational decisions. As Daniel Kahneman points out, that’s not the way the world works. For instance, our loss aversion bias pushes us towards non-rational investment decisions. (See also here). It happens all the time and has created a whole new school of thought called behavioral economics (and a Nobel prize for Kahneman).

Intelligence testing – System 1 makes up to 95% of our decisions but our classic IQ tests focus exclusively on System 2. That doesn’t make sense. We need new tests that incorporate rationality as well as intelligence.

Advertising – we often measure the effectiveness of advertising through awareness tests. Yet System 1 operates below the threshold of awareness. We can know things without knowing that we know them. As Peter Steidl points out, if we make 95% of our decisions in System 1, doesn’t it also follow that we make (roughly) 95% of our purchase decisions in System 1? Branding should focus on our habits and memory rather than our awareness.

Habits (both good and bad) – we know that we shouldn’t procrastinate (or smoke or eat too much, etc.). We know that in System 2, our conscious self. But System 2 doesn’t control our habits; System 1 does. In fact, John Arden calls System 1 the habitual brain. If we want to change our bad habits (or reinforce our goods ones), we need to change the habits and rules stored in System 1. How do we do that? Largely by changing our memories.

Judgment, probability, and public policy – As Daniel Kahneman points out, humans are naturally good at grammar but awful at statistics. We create our mental models in System 1, not System 2. How frequently does something happen? We estimate probability based on how easy it is to retrieve memories. What kinds of memories are easy to retrieve? Any memory that’s especially vivid or scary. Thus, we overestimate the probability of violent crime and underestimate the probability of good deeds. We make policy decisions and public investments based on erroneous – but deeply held – predictions.

Less logic, louder voice – people who aren’t very good at something tend to overestimate their skills. It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect – people don’t recognize their own ineptitude. It’s an artifact of System 1. Experts will often craft their conclusions very carefully with many caveats and warnings. Non-experts don’t know that their expertise is limited; they simply assume that they’re right. Thus, they often speak more loudly. It’s the old saying: “He’s seldom right but never in doubt”.

Teaching critical thinking – I’ve read nearly two-dozen textbooks on critical thinking. None of them give more than a passing remark or two on the essential differences between System 1 and System 2. They focus exclusively on our conscious selves: System 2. In other words, they focus on how we make five per cent of our decisions. It’s time to re-think the way we teach thinking.

How We Think And What It Means

Let's think about this.

Let’s think about this.

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.

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