Within your brain, you have two different systems for thinking and making decisions. These are not your “left brain” and your “right brain” (i.e. your left and right brain hemispheres) to which people so often attribute the differences between more creative and more logical people. Modern psychologists call the two systems to which I am referring System 1 and System 2 and the way in which these two thinking systems work has been studied extensively over the last 40 years or more.
In this blog entry, I’m going to describe these two systems, outline some of their strengths and their weaknesses, and describe how the ELECTIA approach to decision-making has been designed to harness the strengths of both systems whilst seeking to also minimize the risks that arise from the weaknesses of each system.
Two thinking systems? Really? Prove it to me.
First of all, I need to persuade you that these two different thinking systems really exist.
Clear your mind and start to pay attention to your own thinking. Tune in to your own thoughts. When you’ve done that, answer the following question, noticing your responses and your thinking as you do so:
If it takes five machines 5 minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take one hundred machines to make one hundred widgets?
Did you notice your immediate, automatic response to the question? Was it 100 minutes? Now, if you haven’t already done so, think through the question more carefully. You will find that the correct answer is 5 minutes. Why was your immediate response to the question wrong?
The answer is that your immediate response came from your thinking System 1. This system is very fast, automatic, unconscious and intuitive. The moment that you finished reading the question, your System 1 effortlessly provided you with an answer. However, the answer that your System 1 provided to you was wrong because System 1 doesn’t do maths. To get the correct answer to the question, you had to engage your thinking System 2. This system is much slower; it is conscious, logical and requires deliberate effort to use.
The fact that your System 1 gave you 100 minutes as the answer to the question does not mean that you are stupid. Everyone’s System 1 gives the same answer and I’ll explain why a little later on.
This question was one of three counter-intuitive questions that Shane Frederick, a psychologist at Yale University, asked to over three thousand university and college students in the US. Only 17% of the students answered all three questions correctly, whilst 33% of the students got all three questions wrong. Why?
It’s not because some of the students were better at maths than others. It’s because our System 1 is constantly at work, providing us with immediate judgements about our environment and our current situation. However we do not use our System 2 continuously in the same way; System 2 requires effort and must be applied deliberately. So if we don’t take the time and make the effort to consciously consider a question such as those in Shane Frederick’s study, that is, if we answer the questions by relying on the immediate response of our System 1 and don’t use our System 2, then we get the wrong answers. Most of those US university and college students, for at least some of the questions, were relying on their automatic responses, their System 1.
Here’s another example to illustrate the differences between our System 1 and System 2. Tune into your own thinking again.
Maybe you play the lottery or have done so in the past? If so, do you have regular lottery numbers that you enter every week or do you get new, randomly-generated numbers each week?
Already you are likely to have made some immediate judgements in response to these two questions and hopefully you were able to detect them. Those of you who do play the lottery may have got a little excited when I asked the first question since the question itself is likely to have triggered an emotional response and the emotion that you felt is likely to be the same one that you most associate with the lottery, which is probably the excitement of the anticipation of winning.
Those of you who don’t play the lottery might have had an immediate negative response, something like: “no, I don’t; it’s a stupid game, a waste of money.” Whether or not this was your immediate response will depend on your existing view of the lottery, but the point is that these responses are immediate and come without effort; they come from System 1.
Returning to those of you who do play the lottery, the second question probably also evoked an immediate response, a judgement about having “your own” numbers versus some randomly-generated numbers. And the nature of your response will reflect which of these two options you’ve chosen.
I play the lottery and my lottery numbers are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
I hope you were still tuned into your own thinking just then. What was your immediate reaction when you read my lottery numbers? Confusion? Maybe you had to re-read that sentence to check that it actually said what you thought you’d read. Or disbelief? “No one would have those lottery numbers! That’s so stupid, those numbers would never come up!”
Now apply your System 2 thinking and consider my lottery numbers. Statistics and probabilities tell us that my numbers are exactly as likely to be drawn as your numbers, whether you selected your own numbers or whether you had them randomly generated by the lottery ticket machine.
I bet that idea isn’t sitting very well with you, is it? It just doesn’t feel right, does it? If you are able to acknowledge that logically, statistically my numbers are just as likely to be drawn as yours, but at the same time you also feel that this just doesn’t seem right, then you are experiencing the conflict that can exist between your System 1 (intuitive) and System 2 (logical). I hope that helps you to believe that these two different systems for thinking exist and that they are quite different to each other.
Why do we have two thinking systems and what are the differences?
As is the case with everything that makes us human, these two different thinking systems are the result of evolution. System 1 was the first of the two systems to evolve; it evolved in our very distant animal ancestors and it is present in most or all animal species, including cats, dogs, horses, goats and so on.
System 2 evolved much more recently and arises from the substantially enlarged pre-frontal cortex that humans possess relative to other animals. There is some debate about whether it is only humans that possess the cognitive capabilities that arise from our System 2, such as self-awareness, the ability to reflect, the ability to anticipate the consequences of our actions, and so on. Some scientific evidence suggests that a few other animal species, notably chimpanzees, some other close ape relatives, dolphins and possibly whales, may share some of these cognitive abilities to a limited degree. However the cognitive capabilities of humans, provided to us by System 2, are far beyond those of any other species.
The differences between the two systems can usually be understood by considering the forces of natural selection that shaped the evolution of our ancestors. System 1 evolved to quickly identify potentially important information and patterns in the relatively simple, animal world of our ancestors. It is well suited to helping us to find food, shelter and mates, and to avoid predators.
Why isn’t System 1 any good at maths problems? Because our tribal, plains-dwelling, hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have to worry about counting exact numbers above about three or four and they certainly didn’t spend time wondering about how many widgets a machine might produce. So when you read the question at the start of this blog entry, your System 1 didn’t do maths, instead it immediately identified an apparent pattern: 5, 5, 5, 100, 100, ….
For a comprehensive and absolutely excellent description of System 1 and System 2, I would recommend reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and grandfather of behavioural economics Daniel Kahneman. The following table summarises some of the main characteristics, advantages and disadvantages of each thinking system.
In “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Kahneman describes the potential weaknesses of System 1 and System 2 by characterising System 1 as a “machine for jumping to conclusions” and by saying of the two systems: “System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy.”
The ELECTIA approach to decision-making takes this, the human nature of decision-making, into account. It is designed to harness the strengths of each of our thinking systems whilst seeking to also minimize the risks that arise from the weaknesses of each system.
“Decision or default?” revisited
In my first blog entry (“Decision or default?”), I asked: “How often do we empower ourselves to choose consciously, and how often do we react by default, without thinking?”
Reacting only on the basis of System 1 is what I call a default reaction. There are some circumstances when reacting by default is appropriate; examples of this would include when we must react very fast in an emergency or when playing competitive sports, or when we are performing simple, everyday tasks or highly repetitive tasks. However, my belief is that for us to become better decision-makers in today’s complex world, we must more often make conscious, considered decisions, making use of our thinking System 2.
If we empower it to do so, our System 2 is able to inhibit some of our immediate System 1-driven reactions. Using System 2 we can then reflect on our immediate judgements, our unconscious assumptions, our emotions and our biases, and we can assess the validity and the usefulness of these automatic responses. This behaviour is sometimes called “metacognition”; I call it “thinking about thinking.”
The ELECTIA approach to decision-making is designed to make use of both System 1 and System 2 working together to help you to make better decisions. In particular, the four enabling capabilities are all based on the idea of using both thinking systems, as follows:
- Learning to think about thinking: By practicing thinking about thinking and making it a habit, we can learn to more frequently and more easily use our System 2 to double-check the immediate outputs of our System 1, correcting cognitive errors, reducing biases and thereby making better decisions.
- Learning to learn: We learn automatically and continuously by the action of our System 1 making associations between different events in our lives. We can learn even more effectively by using our System 2 to reflect on our decisions and their outcomes, however we often don’t take the time or make the effort for this sort of conscious reflection and learning. By making this a habit, we can learn more effectively and become better decision-makers.
- Learning to use both rational and creative thinking: Good decision-making demands both the identification of available options through creative, expansive thinking and then the selection of the most appropriate option through logical, reductive thinking. Learning to tap into the power of our System 1 and System 2 in turn, for each of these steps respectively, helps us to become more effective decision-makers.
- Learning to manage ambiguity and apparent paradoxes: Our System 1 doesn’t like ambiguity or paradox and it exhibits a number of bad behaviours when we are faced with ambiguity; for example, it will simply ignore the fact of there being missing relevant information and make decisions based only on whatever limited, and sometimes irrelevant, information it has. Many of our cognitive failures and bad decisions result from this, so learning to recognize this and take corrective action, via System 2, is important for good decision-making.
In future blog posts, I will describe each of these enabling capabilities in more detail. In the meantime, I encourage you to start practicing thinking about thinking. You can do this by occasionally taking a little time out to reflect on your recent decisions….
- What was your immediate response from System 1?
- How much did you double-check your System 1 response using your System 2?
- On reflection (using System 2), does your System 1 response seem reasonable and correct? In what ways might it be unreasonable or incorrect?
- What do you learn from your reflections?
If nothing else, take the opportunity to do this whenever you next purchase your lottery ticket…!