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Deep Thinking

When and where was the last time that you made time for a long, deep think?
It may feel like the stars have to align perfectly in order for you to delve deeply into a topic or problem and get some “eureka!” moments. And, from our research, that actually turns out to be true. Deep thinking happens for different people at different times, but there are circumstances you can manipulate to create the best possible environment for deep thoughts. Read on to learn about a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist’s theory of shallow and deep thinking, hear insights on how our staff does their best thinking, get a visual breakdown of the theory of flow and get tips on the best soundtrack for your deepest thoughts.

Wade into the Deep:

Daniel Kahneman and Deep versus Shallow Thinking

Do you think fast or slow — and do you know the difference? Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and author Daniel Kahneman describes our two systems of thinking in depth in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Read on to learn about how thinking fast and slow correlates with thinking shallow and deep.

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Do you ever think about how you think — otherwise known as metacognition? Can you tell when your thought process is actively changing? The two thinking systems that shape our judgments and decisions are described in Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

Simultaneously Fast and Slow

Kahneman, a founding father of behavioral economics, posits the existence of two active thinking systems during your brain’s waking hours. System 1 thinks fast and shallow and is easily accessible. System 2 involves more effortful — or deep — thinking. System 2 tends to remain in a minimal effort mode unless System 1 requires assistance.

System 1 runs without any prompting and consists of quick emotional responses, instinctual reactions, and unconscious decision-making. Feelings and impressions generated by System 1, when accepted by System 2, transform into beliefs and actions.

What’s 4 + 4? The immediate answer surfacing in your mind is a classic example of System 1 thinking. Other examples of System 1 thinking include deciding where to sit when you and your colleagues go out to lunch, which cluster of bananas to purchase at the grocery store or which pen to use for writing a birthday card to a loved one.

What is 17 x 37? With a more complex math problem, you are less likely to have an answer stored and ready for a rapid-fire reply. For this more complicated equation, you will have to work through the problem before providing an answer. This requires slower, deliberate, rational, and reflective thoughts — System 2 thinking. System 2 thinking is evident in situations such as writing a pros and cons list for taking a new job or comparing two mattresses for overall quality and cost-effectiveness.

The balance in system power stems from System 2’s ability to monitor behaviors, change opinions, and orient attention. System 2 thinking can also easily be derailed by interruptions.

Heuristics are essentially mental shortcuts; using them allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently.

System 1: Shortcuts and Shortcomings

The issue with System 1 is its reliance on face value and past experiences. Unsurprisingly, intuition is prone to error. Confirmation biases and heuristics are two problematic trends in System 1 thinking, since they can quickly lead thinkers to the wrong conclusions.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, recall, interpret, or process information in a way that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.

Heuristics combined with past experience allows us to avoid making the same mistakes many times over. The problem is that although shortcuts speed up the decision-making process, they can also introduce errors by ignoring inconsistent information or making snap judgments with little to no factual basis.

System 2’s Downfalls

While human psychology is the drawback of System 1, human technology has proven to be a huge inhibitor in System 2, which is easily interrupted by distractions. With screens all around us, it has become increasingly difficult to truly engage in deep System 2 thinking.

Cognitive bias is also problematic in System 2. Jag Bhalla of Big Think explains that one limitation of Kahneman’s systems is that “cognitive biases have two sources of error, the observed behavior and what economists suppose is ‘rational.’” Since many economists assume that individuals will make rational decisions, this in and of itself serves as a limitation because emotions and experiences validated by System 2 and human nature actually makes us more often sociocentric than rationally adaptive.

The Perks of Bias

Sometimes, the relationship between Systems 1 and 2 produces cognitive illusions. Cognitive illusions are interactions based on assumptions about the world, which then lead to unconscious inferences. While assumptions often lead to falsehoods, these cognitive illusions and biases are not always shortcomings. Optimism, for example, may generate false beliefs, but it also makes for healthier, more psychologically resilient individuals.

Since cognitive illusions cannot be entirely avoided, we might do well to aim instead for increased self-awareness. We can also take comfort in the knowledge that since people have an easier time recognizing others’ mistakes than their own, collaboration can mitigate the effects of confirmation bias.

Fast and Slow Thinking in Marketing

The existence of System 1 and System 2 thinking has some interesting implications for marketing. It is important to know which system should be considered and used under what circumstances. Although System 2, which requires more focus and greater reflection, appears to be the immediate choice for creative marketing, greater concentration does not necessarily translate into better results.

System 1 is advantageous in the marketing world because — in many cases — biases and intuition drive sales more so than logic. Companies strive for their products to become no-brainer purchases, which is entirely based out of the automatic System 1. If a company is considering an advertising strategy that seeks an emotional response, that’s all triggered in System 1 thinking.

This doesn’t mean marketers shouldn’t try to appeal to System 2. In fact, rational information can be the final push a potential customer needs to convince them to make a large purchase.

System 1 is also useful in market research, when analyzing brand awareness and seeking data regarding consumers’ instantaneous feelings on an organization or a product. System 2, on the other hand, is utilized in testing techniques such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups.

Wade into the Deep End

Our brains are going to continue to run System 1 and System 2 thinking, with or without our awareness. But we can be a little more deliberate about realizing what’s going on in our brain — and in consumers’ brains.

We can make space for ourselves to wade into the deep end of the thinking pool. Explore the rest of the Understanding Deep Thinking series for some ideas on music, workspaces, and techniques to get you there.

Some Deep Thoughts

For some real-life examples of what it takes to think deep, we turned to our in-house thinkers: the Cobalt staff. Within our organization we have graphic design ninjas, seasoned storytellers, organizational masterminds, communications champions and business-development heroes — we figured they’d be a great brain trust to mine. Click on each staff member’s photo for details on how and when they do their best deep thinking.

Does Your Workspace

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Music for Deep Thinking

Learn how your listening habits can support cognition.

How To: A Thinker’s Guide to Going Deep

Learning about deep thinking is one thing, but how do we get our brains to actually dive deep? Time and space for deep thinking and creative flow can prove elusive. Just when you sit down with a fresh cup of coffee and a problem to solve… your phone dings, the dog needs to go out or you realize how hungry you are. How can you tune all of that out and get in the right head space? While there’s no winning formula, we’ve put together some suggestions on how to go deep with your thoughts.

Do Some Self-Evaluation

Think about the thinker: yourself. When are you most awake and alert? Maybe you’re someone whose eyelids snap open at 5 a.m., raring to greet the day. Alternatively, you might be a person who pauses for a moment of reflection after everyone in the house has gone to sleep.

Think back over your best ideas, your “aha” moments — when has inspiration struck? If you fall into the post-lunch slump every day, your eyes glazing over, then you can’t expect any great work during that time of day. Observe yourself and find the times when you have the most clarity and focus.

Get Moving — Outside

Walking has been proven to increase creativity by 60 percent. A recent Stanford study found that walking outside produces the highest levels of creativity, followed by walking on a treadmill. The role of physical terrain in the outcome of this study can easily be explained by the difference in stimuli between the outdoors and indoors; there is much more to hear, smell and feel in a natural environment. In fact, according to attention restoration theory (ART), a natural environment’s conjuring of “soft fascination” in individuals allows for a renewed attention capacity and a calmer demeanor, which in turn offers cognitive benefits.

Minimize Distractions

Constant digital interruption is the bane of deep thinking. Even in the course of a normal workday task, interruptions create prospective memory tasks by diverting attention. Recovering from that single interruption implies that you need to reorganize your memory. You effectively overload your brain by mixing two ideas at once. This leads to what’s called “resumption failure” — you just can’t get back to where you were. So lock your door and silence your notifications to give yourself some interruption-free time.

Give it Time

Above all, time is your friend. As creatives at a communications firm, we sit down at our desks every day with a heavy mandate: to come up with good ideas for our clients and implement them in an effective manner. And as much as we want to be efficient, sometimes it just takes putting some hours in.

Fundamentals of Flow

Flow describes the moments that you are engrossed in a challenging, but doable task. You may otherwise know it as “being in the zone,” when it seems like your work just flows easily out of you.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — one of the fathers of positive psychology — pioneered this concept in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” (Tough time with the name? Say “Me High – Cheeks Send Me High”)

If we think back on the best moments of our lives, they are likely spent deeply engaged in something.
The experience of flow is universal — across races, cultures, genders, socioeconomic classes and all types of activities.

What’s the brain chemistry here?

Decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex leads to the feeling of distortion of time and loss of the inner critic, allowing for increased creativity.

Flow occurs when the SKILL LEVEL and the CHALLENGE are equal.

8 Characteristics of Flow:


Complete concentration


Clear Goal + Immediate Feedback + Reward


Time seems to speed up or slow down


Intrinsically rewarding


Feeling of effortlessness


Balance of challenge and skills


Loss of self-conscious rumination


Feeling of mastery/control over the task

Cobalt’s Understanding(x) Series examines complex topics with the goal of increasing understanding in the general public. At the end of each year, we hope to have a portfolio of materials about the chosen topics that will become part of the public record — a resource for teachers, students and citizens to draw upon in their quest for clarity and connection. If you have any suggestions for topics to be considered, drop us a line.