How We Think About Decisions – the Fast, Slow, and the Lazy

In the book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, author and Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman identifies two thinking systems we possess called “System 1″ and “System 2″. Each system is responsible for a very different kind of thinking – one system isn’t fundamentally better than the other. The trouble occurs when one system jumps in to do work best left to its buddy system. This happens more than we would like to admit, and so it is critical that we have a basic understanding of these systems, the tricks they can play on one another, and how to limit the negative effects of these tricks.

Lucky for you, that’s what we’re going to cover today!

The Fast Thinker

System 1 is Daniel Kahneman’s fast thinking system. It’s automatic, intuitive, effortless, uncritical, and is our default mode of thought. It’s main function is to always be on, constantly updating what constitutes “normal” in our world by making quick and easy associations. When we look at a face, it’s System 1 that automatically assesses their emotional state and whether or not they are a threat.  It does this subconsciously, and that’s another important characteristic of System 1. System 1 is working the most of the two systems, and most of its work is done subconsciously and is therefore not known to you! Is this good? Yes and no – it all depends.

Our hardware just could not handle it if all of System 1′s activities registered consciously. The amount of data we’d be forced to actively work through would be astronomical. So it’s good that System 1 runs effortlessly in the background, but only when the task is one that it is prepared to handle! 

I don’t want to have to consciously analyze a face every time I see one to determine the individual’s emotional state. I don’t want to have to contemplate whether or not 1+1=2 is indeed a true statement every time I encounter such a routine equation.

However, I don’t want to make an intuitive decision when I am analyzing grant applications, dozens of early stage startups that each claim to be the next Dropbox, or the next killer feature that we’re looking to build into our product. These are complex decisions that are best made by deliberate and conscious analysis – not by quick and intuitive thought processes. This takes us to System 2.

The Slow Thinker

System 2 is the system that is best suited for complex decisions with a number of variables to consider. As the name suggests, this is our secondary system that is meant to take the lead when System 1 encounters a situation it doesn’t think it’s fit for. System 2 is more logical, rational, and accurate and has a love of numbers and statistics. This system can follow rules, make comparisons, and then make a decision that has its foundation in logic. Because System 2 is so much more logical, it can also reduce our susceptibility to cognitive illusions and biases that System 1 will fall prey to each and every time if left to its own devices.

So, System 2 sounds great, why in the world do we need System 1?

Well, System 2 is slow and requires substantial effort due to this system requiring our undivided attention. We are consciously aware of the information System 2 takes in as well as the thought processes of this system. As a result, System 2 can handle less pieces of information at any given time due to our very limited ability to multitask. It’s clear then that if we ran on System 2 exclusively, or even mostly, we’d struggle to function in our everyday lives because we’d be overwhelmed by even the simplest of things. We would be deadly accurate but oh so slow!

Slow and Lazy

So, it’s perfect then, isn’t it? We have a dominant system that does much of our thinking subconsciously at the speed of light, and a secondary system to jump in for those decisions that require logic and reasoning. No matter the requirement, no matter the challenge, we have an “app for that”. It really is perfect – except for when it isn’t.

System 2 is like the incredibly bright person that has no desire to apply himself. System 1 is like the eager, hyperactive, ready to take on any and all comers despite not being the best fit for the challenging work  kind of person. Put the two together, and you have a genius in logic passing off complex decision making to their eager and highly incapable counterpart. As you can imagine, this leads to some major errors.

Take a look at the following argument:

All roses are flowers,

Some flowers fade quickly,

Therefore, some roses fade quickly.

When undergraduates at American Universities including top tier schools were asked whether or not this was a logical argument, many said it was. System 1 often takes this task on and reports that it is indeed a logical statement. After all, if roses are flowers, and some flowers fade quickly, then of course some of those roses fade quickly too.

However if given a few seconds, System 2 would quickly see through the gaps in this argument and realize that it is entirely possible for some flowers to fade quickly and for none of those to be roses. System 2 passed its task on to System 1 because the task seemed simple and routine. The result is the wrong answer from otherwise very intelligent people!

I’ll leave you with five examples of system failures that can occur when one system does the work best left to the other. I’m sure you will have experienced or witnessed some of these!

5 Examples of System Failure

  1. Priming is when unrelated information or stimuli effects System 2 function without our knowing. This is particularly dangerous because we will feel like we’re doing the right thing and intentionally activating System 2 to make a difficult decision. In reality, System 1 has its hands on the steering wheel. For example, having a warm cup of your favourite coffee in your hand can cause you to perceive someone as more warm and pleasant, even though their character is certainly not related to your coffee! So, if you are interviewing your top 10 applicants and you’re holding that cup of coffee for some of the interviews and not others; some of those applicants may be receiving a completely unfair advantage.
  2. System 1 overvalues first impressions. It likes to take pieces of information and then construct a cohesive story from it. So, if we meet someone for the first time and they rub us the wrong way, we’ll put a spin on everything said thereafter in such a way as to continue the story they started with their first impression. We’ll generate assumptions that seem logical and related to previous experience to continue this story. Further, we will look for opportunities to associate other characteristics that we dislike with this person. The same holds true with a good first impression. Couple this with priming, and it’s clear that first impressions can be quite faulty. 
  3. Cognitive ease is basically System 1 running rampant. We feel optimistic, uncritical, agreeable, intuitive, and other such feelings when in a state of cognitive ease. The unfortunate thing is that it isn’t too difficult to put someone into such a state. For example, phrases that rhyme or using repetition can put us into a state of cognitive ease. This is why clever sales copy with neat little phrases can move us into this state of mind where we don’t question what is being said but rather receive it with open and uncritical arms. 
  4. System 1 has a main function of believing. That is, given a statement that is loosely based in logic at best, System 1 will work to construct a story around that statement that will make it seem more plausible. You can respect that if left unchecked, this makes for a gullible decision maker.
  5. System 1 has a tendency to answer a simpler version of the problem posed. For example, if given the task to select the best applicant out of 100 based on 15 decision criteria, we might convince ourselves that there are only three pieces of criteria that are actually important. In effect, we’ve simplified the problem and solved that much simpler problem. 

The End?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the end, but it’s a great start! Most of the time, the way these systems work is to our advantage. However, the few times that our human nature takes us off track can be costly, and so it’s imperative that we protect against it.

System 2 is more likely to hand its work over to System 1 when we are stressed, short on time, or distracted (which is often for many of us!).

Luckily, quality online submission management products help us make logical System 2 decisions by organizing and streamlining the entire online submission management process. Remember, System 2 is lazy! Make the decision-making process complicated (many are), and System 2 will be forwarding its duties to System 1. Find a solution that makes the entire process simple from beginning to end, and your System 2 will roll up its sleeves and pitch in!


Can anyone, in hindsight, think of some times where their System 2 may have kicked its legs up and relaxed during a complex decision?

Or, can you think of a time where you or perhaps someone you interviewed with may have been unknowingly swayed by a warm drink or some other unrelated external stimulus?

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