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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Clear Goal + Immediate Feedback + Reward
Time seems to speed up or slow down
Feeling of effortlessness
Balance of challenge and skills
Loss of self-conscious rumination
Feeling of mastery/control over the task
Cobalt-60 is the name of our blog, an online digest dedicated to the art and science of communications. (It’s also an isotope of the element cobalt.)
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