System 1 and System 2

By: Marleigh Miller, Search Associate, GattiHR Industrial

As quickly as your mind decided that this woman has short, grey hair and a pan in her hand, you also knew she was angry. You may have even automatically imagined seconds into the future –  predicting what she is about to say, the grunt or growl that she is making, or what she is about to do with that pan. As Daniel Kahnman, an award-winning psychologist and behavioral economist, explains in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” you did not intend on making this well-rounded assessment of the photo. Your brain automatically anticipated the tone of the photo and what the woman may do, without feeling like you had to. This is an example of “fast thinking,” or System 1 cognitive thought process. System 1 is involuntary and causes no mental, emotional or physical frustration. It’s as easy as finishing the phrase, “bread and ______.”

Now, evaluate the problem below:

34 x 79 = ___

When your eyes met this problem, you knew it was multiplication. If you’re good at math, you may have a range in mind of where the answer may fall, however, the correct answer has not come to mind, and you have either chosen to complete the problem, or not to complete it. If you were to try to complete the problem without a calculator, you’d search your brain for memory of how to complete a multiplication problem by hand. The process of solving this problem calls for taking deliberate and intentional steps, which Kahnman calls the “prototype of slow thinking.” This slow thinking is also known as System 2 cognitive thought process. System 2 is voluntary and effortful. It can be as intentional or as complicated as searching a crowd for a specific person or filing your taxes.

Kahneman’s theory of Systems 1 and 2 is a major theory within behavioral economics that combines psychological insights to economic theory and landed him the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002. The psychology behind decision-making under uncertainty can help illuminate our thought processes when solving problems or making economic and business decisions. Considering System 1 is associated with the emotional and System 2 is associated with the logical, once we’re aware of what systems we’re using, we can be aware of whether or not we’re making the right decision or if we have the mental capacity in that moment to make the right decision. If we’re running off System 2 all day long, Kahnman argues that our decision-making will be negatively affected and impact the way we interact with others.

Part of this dual process theory suggests that our System 2 thought process depletes throughout the day. When you’ve been working hard to solve a problem, or you’ve been handed a task that requires you to make repetitive, thoughtful and effortful choices, you may notice yourself growing frustrated, impatient, short-tempered and you may even feel the physical effects such as headaches, hunger and exhaustion. This theory may seem obvious, because of the fact that we all at some point feel the side effects of a long day working on System 2, but being able to put a name to the commonality can help us acknowledge it, address it and hopefully become better at managing it so we’re making the right choices in our professional and personal lives.

A study published by the National Academy of Sciences and edited by Kahneman in 2011 illuminates how decisions are affected by the frustrations of System 2. The study analyzed the legal rulings of parole judges who spend the entirety of their day reviewing applications for parole in a serial manner. It was found that, “The probability of a favorable decision drops from about 65% to almost 0% from the first ruling to the last ruling within each session, and that the rate of favorable rulings returns to 65% in a session following a food break.” After coming back from a food break between each of the 3 sessions, the next 2 hours would see approval rates steadily drop again. The study showed how a decline in the judge’s glucose levels and the long stretches of running on System 2 in each session was affecting whether or not they granted an individual with parole. The study was originally done to provide supporting evidence for the theory that “justice is what the judge ate for breakfast” and that extraneous factors affect legal rulings, but Kahneman references the study in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and uses it as support for how System 2 depletion affects judgement.

The message here is quite simple: When you feel that you’ve been running on System 2 for a long period of time or feel yourself becoming hungry, impatient, or acquiring a headache from your day, it’s best to try to come back from the depletion prior to making another decision. As professionals, the decisions we make will affect the lives of the people that we work with and those that are peripheral benefactors of our business. If we’re able to draw attention towards System 2 when it gets to be too much, we could potentially save ourselves from making a bad, or wrong decision. Ways to relieve the effects of mental depletion could be taking a quick nap, having a snack, or enjoying your hobby such as exercising, painting, playing an instrument, watching an episode of your favorite show, or something that involves more of System 1 and less of System 2.

If you’re like me, sometimes running off System 2 can make you more susceptible to temptation and distractions. Kahneman uses the theory of Ego Depletion, coined by social psychologist Roy Baumeister, to elaborate on this. Ego Depletion suggests that we have a limited collective of mental resources in which both self-control and will power draw from. If we’re simultaneously dealing with a challenging cognitive task and with temptation, psychologists suggest that we’re more likely to yield to the temptation. Since self-control is a voluntary choice, it uses System 2 thinking and is drawing even more energy from that limited pool of mental resources. However, System 1 has more of an influence on behavior while System 2 is hard at work, therefore, it’s easier and sometimes even involuntary, to give in to the temptation while System 2 is preoccupied.

Again, becoming aware of how our minds work will give us the upper hand in having control over them and ultimately help us make the right choices. If we’re awake, both System 1 and 2 are running. However, when system 2 isn’t being vigorously used, it’s running on a “low-effort mode.” If we can recognize when System 2 is on high-effort mode, we can consciously adjust our attention to making better choices when it comes to temptations such as checking our Instagram or looking up to realize that we just ate an entire sleeve of Oreos and didn’t even realize it.

If you’d like to learn more about System 1 and 2 cognitive thought processes, Daniel Kahnman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” ebook is available on NOOK or on Google Play. The first 50 pages are also available for a free preview on Google Books.