Of Two Minds

While we can all walk and chew gum at the same time (well, hopefully my readers are of that caliber), there are things you cannot do at the same time. Have you ever been out for a walk with someone and suddenly had to stop walking to process something that came up – like a complex calculation or a “wait-what?” moment. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Hahneman explains that the brain has two different cognitive systems. System 1 is for the instinctual, emotional, and automatic easy stuff of life – things you can do without much thinking after you have mastered them – like driving or walking. Without System 1 we would be unable to make and retain simple connections (stove hot), or be able to quickly add 2 plus. System 2 is more focused and takes effort, like when you are trying to do a difficult equation or understand a new concept.

System 1 is fast and it likes things to be neat, connected and simple. It is the quick appraising part of the brain and can make assumptions for facts not in evidence. For example, if all you know about a person is that they are attractive, in “the halo effect”, the brain assumes they are also competent. System 2 is slower and conscious, and actually can be so intense as to lower your body’s glucose levels. When you are in System 2 mode you are more likely to give into temptation, which together with the lowered glucose level could be why I need to grab a sugary snack after intense periods of concentration (at least that is the excuse I am now using – you have permission to quote me as an expert and use it yourself).

The trouble is that sometimes we can be locked into System 1 thinking because it has a tendency to think that the bit of information that we have is enough to inform us and once locked into that our brains can refuse to absorb facts that challenge those assumptions. I personally think it is that it is System 1 that makes us react to all the email scams so well engineered to make us click that link or sign that petition. In fact, marketing materials can be designed to take advantage of our System 1 reflex thinking by using bold type or rhyming jingles – making the messages simple and memorable.

Both systems also play a part in experience and memory. Your remembrance of an experience is constructed by System 2, but it is strongly influenced by System 1, which has a tendency to judge an experience by its final moments. If the first week of your vacation is great, but your car broke down during the last week, your memory will more likely be dominated by the unpleasant experience. Now I finally understand why, when my family gets together, the stories our siblings tell sound like we had completely different childhoods – our memories are influenced by these dual mind workings!

We need both systems in order to function and being aware of the workings and pitfalls of both can help us make better choices and decisions. So when you say you are of two minds about something – you really are.


Your Turn: From our last issue. Well, it seems that all of you were much better at putting away the holiday stuff without my motivational tool of humiliation – at least that is what some of you have claimed. I have no choice but to take you at your word, albeit with a tiny bit of skepticism. Now go take down