Sunday, February 10, 2013

System 1 and System 2

Not this.
Everybody has two minds--one rational and one emotional.  (I didn't say two brains, so don't start thinking of that Steve Martin movie.)  Brains are physical systems, made of cells and fed by oxygen carried by blood.  Minds are decision-making systems.  We have two of them guiding our actions, often in contradictory ways.

Some people explain this idea by talking about the amygdala, which is part of the so-called 'lizard brain.'  The amygdala lights up on fMRI scans when people are put in emotionally-charged situations. But I think this ties us too much to the brain and raises questions about whether or not iguanas feel ennui.  It also makes 'lizard-like' behavior sound bad, when in fact it is essential.

Instead, I like Dan Kahneman's distinction between what he calls system 1 and system 2.

System 1 is fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, and subconscious 
System 2 is slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious

Everyone has done things that, given time for consideration, they wouldn't have done.  (Maybe just last night!)  The instinctual System 1 often trumps the ponderous System 2.  Casino owners and financial gurus, for example, play on the hopes and fears of System 1.  I know a guy who works at a casino and knows full well that you can't beat the dealer, yet he consistently blows his paycheck gambling.

So what are you supposed to do?  You might think we should try to squash System 1, but there are good reasons we evolved in this way.  We simply don't have time to think through every single choice we face.  We have to rely on habitual responses formed by experience and evolution.  If you're about to get hit by a bus when you're crossing the street, you want System 1 to make you to jump out of the way.  You can't estimate the bus's velocity, calculate the time to collision, and make an informed decision.  We are constantly faced with situations like this where we have to act quickly.

Like this.
Still, there are times when Systems 1 and 2 give us contradictory answers.  System 1 wants a new pair of shoes, but System 2 knows you can't afford it.  Kahneman goes at length to explain the kinds of biases System 1 has.  He hopes that, through understanding, System 2 can compensate for System 1's weaknesses.  But I am skeptical that we can do much to correct for System 1.  I know plenty of people who know they're behaving badly, such as by reacting extremely to any news, but they're incapable of acting any differently.  We're System 1 beings 90% of the time, after all.

I think it's easier to curb System 1 when you see other people acting in System-1-dominated ways.  For example, if a co-worker is flipping out about a client, don't feed into their response.  Reacting in kind will only escalate the situation.  Remember that their current actions are not their considered actions.

I often notice System 1 responses when people are asked to do things, especially at work.  The reaction might be either positive or negative, but neither is very helpful.  It's in my nature to say, "Sure, I can do that," without thinking about how or when I could.  I might not consider a deadline coming up, so I might leave someone hanging.  On the other hand, some people tend to say, "No, I have no time," also without thinking much about it.  They can't be busy until the end of time, but because they feel busy now, they respond negatively.  For this reason, I try to ask "Ok, when could you do that?" whether they say yes or no.  This question requires a System 2 response.

Now, obviously your brain is not divided into two parts, or any number of distinct entities, but the two-system tool is helpful.  At least, it helps me get along with other people a whole lot better.

(By the way, you might think it's odd that Kahneman could win a Nobel prize for such an obvious distinction, but economists got a little too enamored with System 2 in the mid 20th century.  Also, do not read Kahneman's ridiculously long book.  The distinction is not that hard to understand.  His NYT article is all you need.)

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