Updated: Aug 14
Our survival instincts incite quick reflexes in what our minds deem to be life threatening situations. Sometimes, we find ourselves reacting automatically to external stimuli like a glass about to tip over, a friend losing their balance, or a car speeding as we’re about to cross the road.
This automatic mode of thinking is the complete opposite of intentionally slowing down to think about the choices we’re about to make or to reflect on the best way to articulate and explain our ideas. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman's book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” focuses on these two systems of thinking and processing information.
Understanding how our fast and slow thinking systems operate could help you optimize your performance and come up with more efficient solutions to the problems you face on a daily basis. Not only that but getting to know your thought process can also guide your judgment and enhance your decision-making skills.
The Two Modes of Thinking
“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.” ― Daniel Kahneman
Your actions are determined by two primary systems in your mind, one is conscious while the other is automatic.
System 1 is operating automatically and impulsively with little to no effort on your part, nor any sense of deliberate control.
This is the system you usually rely on when you’re taking a walk in a neighbourhood you're familiar with, when you’re riding a bike, or when you’re grocery shopping and the store is about to close so you grab everything on your list without paying much attention to the labels or brands. Fast thinking often consists of strategic or learned behaviour stemming from our past, and this system is crucial to our survival therefore automatic.
System 2, on the other hand, is much slower, more aware, conscious, and deliberate. When you’re thinking slow, your mind redirects your attention and efforts to the mental activity at hand, this often involves complex situations or computations that cannot be analyzed and calculated in a matter of seconds. Operating System 2 is entirely subjective to the individual and their agency, concentration, and problem-solving/decision-making skills.
The Dominant System of Thinking
“A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.” ― Daniel Kahneman
For the most part, System 1 is our dominant mode of thinking, despite feeling like we can identify more with System 2. While we’d like to consider ourselves as logical and analytical, we spend most of our time engaged in fast thinking. The switch to slow thinking only occurs if we encounter something that takes us by surprise, or if we must make a conscious effort to complete a task or assignment.
The Shortcomings of Thinking Fast
“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” ― Daniel Kahneman,
One of the biggest shortcomings of System 1 is that it aims to create plausible stories to explain what is happening around us solely based on quick mental connections, past memories and experiences, as well as half-baked assumptions. Thinking fast means our minds will always choose the convenience of the stories our System 1 crafted rather than making the effort to analyze the situation from different aspects. Even if that story is based on inaccurate information, our minds will try to corroborate it by getting our System 2 to endorse that narrative.
This is why we tend jump to conclusions, make negative assumptions, and submit to prejudice.
Thinking Slow to Optimize Performance
Although System 1 has numerous flaws and shortcomings, you shouldn’t try to turn it off entirely and operate in System 2 instead. This wouldn’t be possible just as it wouldn’t help you become more productive. In fact, it can have the very opposite effect.
“Constantly questioning our own thinking would be impossibly tedious, and System 2 is much too slow and inefficient to serve as a substitute for System 1 in making routine decisions. The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high.” ― Daniel Kahneman
The golden rule here is to let System 1 run while you’re making inconsequential decisions or doing mundane activities. System 1 saves your mind a valuable amount of energy and helps reduce fatigue and burnout, and even if it’s wrong now and again, you shouldn’t seek to kill this process. With that said, when you’re about to make an important decision, then you can make the switch to System 2. Slow down, take your time, pay close attention to all the variables in the situation you aim to remedy so you can reach the most sensible and well-informed decision.
Creating opportunities that push you to be more introspective and analytical is a great way to train your mind to operate more in System 2. But you simply can’t afford to spend your whole life in System 2 because not only is it too time-consuming but it’s also mentally taxing. Use your System 1 for the things you can accomplish using your “muscle memory” only and resort to System 2 when you’re performing more complex tasks that require your full undivided attention.