Day 23 – One Teaching – System 2 Is Lazy

In 2011, Daniel Kahneman published his book Thinking Fast and Slow in which he presents his groundbreaking work that landed him a Nobel Prize.  He suggests that our human minds essentially have two parts which he calls System 1 and System 2 that work together. 

System 1 is the fast-thinking brain that happens automatically and unconsciously.  It allows us to make quick judgments and react based on surroundings.  System 1 is responsible for our fight or flight reactions to situations.  Kahneman says that System 1 operates on the idea that “What you see is all there is.”  He says that 98% of the time we are using System 1 to think.

System 2 is our much slower, deliberate brain that takes time to work through a decision consciously and in a controlled manner.  This is where logic and reason come from.  It is how we process more complicated decision making, weigh options and seek new information.  System 2 thinking is strenuous.  Kahneman tells us throughout the book that, “System 2 is lazy.”  This is to say that it only wants to expend the effort necessary to get the job done and move on.  We cannot stay in System 2 thinking for very long because it takes so much effort.  Kahneman says only 2% of our thinking time takes place in this part of our brain.

Thinking Fast and Slow goes into great detail explaining these two parts of our brain.  It then goes on to include accounts of experiments that Kahneman and his partner, Amos Tversky, did to test their theories.  It is often comical to see from a new perspective how humans can make such short sighted, System 1 based, snap judgments without the more reasoned checks and balances of System 2.  A couple of my favorite theories they explore include:

  • Availability Bias – This is the tendency to think that examples that come to mind immediately are representative of the true nature of reality.  For example, if a person happens to read about two plane crashes that all happen within a month, he or she might panic and think that something is wrong, opting to avoid air travel.  That person forgets the millions of flights that safely land and take off during the same time period and that the limited occurrences witnessed fall within known statistics.  Availability bias can cause us to make quick decisions based only on immediate inputs that cause us to assume that a few examples represent a broader trend.
  • The Halo Effect – This happens when System 1 assumes that a person we have judged as “good” can do no wrong.  System 1 quickly forgets that we all have both dark and light inside us and sees the person with the Halo as only being good.  The opposite effect is also true.  When a person commits a crime or does something bad, there is a tendency to see the whole person as bad.  Thanks to System 1, we classify people as “sinners and saints”.  We see this often in politics when people committed to a particular party put a “halo” around the head of their candidate while the opponent remains devilish.

The book contains countless more examples of experiments which reveal the absurd judgments that human beings make based on a natural preference for System 1 thinking.  Of course, System 1 is very helpful and keeps us out of immediate trouble by helping us quickly react to our surroundings and situations.  But it is System 2 that makes human beings unique among other creatures and gives us our super-power of reason.  As Kahneman says, “System 2 is lazy.”  We must expend effort to think rationally.  When we become aware of this natural human tendency, we can recognize the need to be more deliberate in our thinking and avoid some of the traps of System 1, such as making snap judgments about ourselves, others and collective belief systems in general.

Yesterday we talked about duality as a concept of separating parts of a whole to make sense of things.  The mental process of division happens because of System 1 snap judgments that are based on beliefs engrained in our unconscious.  Remember that System 1 is the default and in use 98% of the time.  But we can consciously employ System 2 to break ourselves of those false beliefs and work to instill new ones.  With practice our new beliefs can also become unconscious and automatic.  This is how we “re-wire” our thinking.  What if we set an intention to use System 2 with more regularity to question those unconscious beliefs?  To be a maverick and deliberately question our unconscious beliefs, this is what it means to truly think for ourselves.

The conceptual division of our minds into System 1 and System 2 is a dualistic act itself!  As humans, we must use both parts of our brains to be fully ourselves.  System 1 keeps us out of trouble and helps us to act in each moment, while System 2 helps us stay in check and reflect on our decisions.  The conscious mind and the unconscious work together so beautifully in a state of harmony, as one.  Whether we choose to see this or not is up to us.

Photo by Deb Dowd on Unsplash

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *