Two types of thinking

Duel Process Thinking

It has been argued that there are 2 types of thinking

System 1: Automatic, fast, subconscious

System 2: Slow, reasons, contemplative, rational, meta-cognitive

System 1 thinking is what people do most of the time.  People just do, rather than think…then do.  In contrast, system 2 is what most people revert to in the face of difficulty or unfamiliar tasks.  For example, you go to Ikea and buy a flat pack bedside table.  You carry it upstairs and open the box – all using system 1 thinking.  Then you get the instructions, look at them, have a slurp of tea, scratch your head – and the system 2 thinking starts to kick in.  In order to get your head round the unfamiliar task of putting together the table, you need to THINK!!  Of course, your system 1 thinking is still running in the background.  While you study the instructions (system 2), you take a slurp of tea without thinking (system 1) and move around the room (system 1).  This duel system is running parallel all the time, with each system dominating as dictated by the situation.

However, once the brain is familiar with a task the need for system 2 is diminished.  For example, if you had to build 1000 of these tables, by the time you had done 10 you would be doing it slightly more automatically, more so with 100 500 900 etc.  As was noted earlier, system 2 thinking is slower than system 1 so speed of construction should increase as the brain reverts from predominantly system 2 to system 1.  The learning curve evens out and speed of “production” increases.  Another well used example is learning to drive.  When you have your first few lessons, you have to consciously THINK about changing gear, operating the peddles and get the correct speed around corners to avoid coasting (system 2).  Two years later when you have been driving every day, you have reverted to system 1 and you can smoke, talk, listen to the radio, wind the window down and stick your middle finger up while you call the person in front some particularly pleasant name – all without thinking or even knowing that you’ve changed gears / accelerated / braked / indicated several times.

So, how does this relate to personal development?  Well, people use system 2 thinking in all areas of life, such as learning to drive and assembling furniture, but often the neglect the one area where system 2 thinking is needed – their lives.  Why?  The first reason is that using system 2 thinking unusually requires a conscious or subconscious admission to ourselves that we are having difficulty, or are not getting the results we want.  To most people, admitting that things are going the way they want, or that their life is not as they want it to be, is too difficult and causes too much pain – more pain than living with a life that is less than fulfilling.  So they rationalise and pretend everything is ok and look for something else to blame (see: emotionally oriented strategy) and carry on with the system 1 thinking and wondering why they are always stressed, depressed and unhappy.

Another reason is that people often don’t see that they are unhappy with their life.  They see the little things and pick up on those.  The problem is that the little things are the symptoms, not the cause of the problem.  It’s like complaining about all the water and mopping it up all the time, but not fixing the leak.  if everyone else is mopping, then they will mop as well, it’s social proof – the sheep effect.  This said, it should be noted that success does not only come from system 2 thinking.  Some people are highly successful through predominantly use system 1 thinking.  Why?  Simply, because what they are think and how they think works!  So they don’t need to slow down and ponder.  It’s usually only in times of trouble that we really THINK!.  That’s why the saying goes that we learn more from failure than success – because we THINK! more.  But, as I said earlier, most people will rationalise themselves in to a perpetual state of unconscious-incompetence in their lives – simply because they don’t want to admit that their life is not working as they want.  They lower their expectations to match their level of performance, instead of raising their level of performance to meet their expectations.

So, here are three steps to using system 2 thinking to reach your potential and create a better life:

Step 1, Be honest with yourself – Is your life working the way you want it to?  How do you want it to be?  Identify areas you’d like to improve.

Step 2, Identify why those areas are not working they way you want it to.  Focus on you, NOT other people!  Don’t apportion blame, not even to yourself.

Step 3, Create a plan to get from where you are now to where you want to be.

Further reading
When Not to Trust Your Gut by Max Bazerman

Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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