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A Nobel Prize Winner Explains How to Finally Think Clearly

Daniel Kahneman

Nobel Prize winner and psychologist Daniel Kahneman wants us to consider how we make important decisions using different parts of the brain.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman proposes two systems that govern how we think, and you might not even know when one of them is at work.

System 1 Thinking

“The main function of System 1 is to maintain and update a model of your personal world, which represents what is normal in it.”

Consider driving your car from home to work on a quiet road.

Hopefully, you understand the tasks involved, such as using your car’s indicators, accelerating, decelerating and so on, but breaking down exactly what you did to reach the office safely, step-by-step, is difficult.

Unless you encounter an unexpected event (like an accident), driving your car along a familiar route is intuitive.

Similarly, let’s say you meet a potential hire for the first time. You shake their hand, chat for a minute and get a feeling for them. Before the interview has even begun, you decide they’re the ideal candidate.

These examples are representative of System 1 thinking in practice. In some cases, it’s an automatic learned skill. And in others, it’s from the gut or subconscious and based on emotions.

System 2 Thinking

“System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.”

System 2 thinking informs how you focus on a particular task by using expert knowledge and focusing or applying conscious effort.

Consider sitting down with your team to plan a marketing campaign for a new product. You and your team may spend hours setting goals, deciding on a clear outcome, preparing a budget, assigning tasks and more.

This marketing plan requires extended periods of focus and draws on your knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work within your industry.

Similarly, consider driving to work and encountering an accident. This unexpected change demands you pay attention to your environment and monitor your behaviour.

On a more basic level, filling in a tax form also engages System 2 thinking, as does remembering a detail from a meeting you had the previous week with an important client or customer.

How to Use System 1 and System 2 Thinking Together

So, can you actively engage System 1 and System 2 thinking at will to solve a problem?

Understand that two types of systems guide how you think, and be mindful of when you alternate from one system to the other.

Here’s Kahneman’s advice.

“The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: You dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail. It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once.”

If you feel a gut reaction after meeting a hire, it’s probably System 1 thinking.

But you can mitigate the risk of hiring the wrong person by engaging System 2 thinking. Check their references. Ask probing questions. Validate your gut reaction with other members of your team.

That’s not to dismiss the role of System 1 thinking entirely.

It’s particularly useful for deep creative work, which is why many artists and writers describe following their muse or intuition while engaging in writing or drawing, to name two. However, gut feelings aren’t always useful in a business context.

For example, if you and your team have spent a long afternoon detailing a marketing campaign, they may lapse into System One Thinking and make more emotional decisions about what to spend a marketing budget on.

The trick is to be aware of switching from one system to the other. It’s useful to understand when you are thinking on autopilot, when you are paying attention and what’s inside your mental toolbox.