Daniel Kahneman On Our Two Systems Of Thought Fast And Slow


“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it” ― Daniel Kahneman

Plenty of people have recommend reading Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman, so I thought I would finally get to it. A long read — 512 pages — but definitely worth it. Kahneman with his fellow researcher and friend Amos Tversky seek to distill how the mind works. Our minds operate within two distinct systems. One system is automatic and effortless, and the other requires more active and deliberate thought.

System 1 requires little mental effort. Detecting which object is further from another, recognizing a friend, completing the phrase “bread and …”, or knowing the answer to 2 + 2 = ?, are all aspects of system 1. To an experienced driver, it is second nature to operate a car. We can hold intense conversations while driving a car because little mental effort is required to drive. You will notice however, that when a driver is engaged in a conversation, if something unusual happens on the road that requires immediate attention, both the driver and the passenger will automatically, subconsciously stop the conversation just so that the driver can use more mental effort to take control of the situation. Driving uses system 1.

System 2 allocates attention to the mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. Some examples are: focusing attention on a specific person in a noisy room, looking for a man with red hair, remembering an event that occurred a few weeks ago, comparing two washing machines, or checking whether an argument is logically valid. These scenarios require deliberate thought. Anything that does not come naturally or automatically is system 2.

System 1 and system 2 have different modes. When operating under system 1, any small change in the surrounding will be noticed. While in system 2 mode, the intense focus on a task can actually make people effectively blind to other stimuli. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we can also be blind to our blindness. This is why you can find people who are so focused on a task that they hardly here you talking to them.

Kahneman wrote,

Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged.
Surprise then activates and orients your attention: you will stare, and you will search your memory for a story that makes sense of the surprising event. System 2 is also credited with the continuous (link to self monitoring) — the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night.

The effects of system 1 and system 2 have an impact on skills. As you become more skilled at a task, the demand for energy diminishes. Kahneman wrote,

Talent has similar effects. Highly intelligent individuals need less effort to solve the same problems, as indicated by both pupil size and brain activity. 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.

The limited budget of effort greatly impacts both self control and deliberate thought. This part I found really interesting. What happens when system 2 is busy or depleted? It is now a well-established proposition that cognitive effort and self-control are forms of mental work. Many psychological studies have shown that when you are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation, that you are more likely to give in to temptation. People who are mentally drained or cognitively busy are more likely to be selfish, harsh in their language, and make superficial judgements in social settings.

What is incredible about this idea is that it can be trained. Like previous comments on the demand for energy diminishing as you become more skilled at it, there is an existing notion that the effects of temptation on a drained mind also reduce as you become more skilled. This means that when you are starting a diet, the difficulty of resisting temptation only lasts for a few weeks at most. It takes a few weeks to form a habit. That is another way of saying it takes a few weeks from a system 2 task to shift over to system 1. Resisting the temptation for pizza when you are on a diet is a primarily system 2 task, and after you have “practiced” resisting temptation for a few weeks, the resistance to pizza becomes automatic. This same principal applies to things like fighting procrastination and increasing focus — other areas that are primarily system 2 tasks.

What happens when your mind shifts a mentally demanding system 2 task to an automatic system 1 task? Flow. Flow is a state of effortless concentration that is so deep that you lose sense of time, of yourself, and of the surroundings. You are completely immersed in the task. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the pioneer of the flow state, calls it “optimal experience.”

One thing to understand about cognitive effort in system 2 is its limitation. Anything that occupies working memory ends up reducing the ability to think and make better decisions. You are actually a better consumer if you watch tv after a long day’s work because the ads have a greater influence on you if you’re already mentally exhausted. The self-control of morning people is impaired at night and vice versa.

Kahneman wrote,

Baumeister’s group has repeatedly found that an effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion.
The best possible account of the data provides bad news: tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole. Both fatigue and hunger probably play a role.

Thinking Fast And Slow is a fantastic read by Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. The mind used to be a black box, but in recent years there have been plenty of findings to help enlighten us on the inner workings of our minds.


Originally published at seekingintellect.com on December 7, 2014. Subscribe to the Seeking Intellect Newsletter