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Updated: Jul 5

Throughout the 400 or so pages of Thinking fast and slow, Daniel Kahneman shows us how much more goes on behind our eyes than we realize. We also learn strategies to avoid making big mistakes in both our work and personal lives. The lessons taught in his book will significantly affect how you think and lead you to question more and intuit with more accuracy. Based on over four decades of study and research into biases, the psychology of judgment, decision-making, and behavioral economics, Kahneman sheds light on how we come to conclusions throughout our life and what prompts the intuitions we use for decision making. He reveals that we need first to understand our minds' workings to make better decisions and understand the impact of our biases. In doing so, decision-makers will be able to make better choices as we, their critics, will judge them more fairly on how they come to these conclusions rather than just the outcomes of them.

Two inter-dependent personalities in a single mind

At the beginning of his book, Kahneman introduces two aspects of our minds – System 1 and System 2 – and invites us to think of these as different personalities embodied within us. Neither system is embodied in a particular area of the brain. Each system functions using a variety of locations throughout our grey matter.

System 1 is our automatic, fast, and unconscious thought. It cannot be turned off; it does not need a conscious direction to function. System 1 creates our impressions, intuitions, and supplies System 2 with information to aid its conscious decisions. The instigator of biases, System 1 is also responsible for several functions that get us safely through our day.

Detecting one object is further away than another, orienting us to the source of sounds, completing simple, common phrases, automatic expressions of disgust at horrible images, detecting hostility in voices, answers to simple equations, reading words on a large billboard, and recognizing stereotypical resemblances are all functions attributed to System 1.

System 2 is how we think of as 'me.' To function, it requires our attention, and it is disrupted when our focus is drawn elsewhere. While System 2 can discern information and figure out answers to difficult questions, it's often lazy and defers to System 1 if it can.

Examples of System 2's work include bracing for a starter's gun in a race, focusing on a singular voice in a crowded room, looking for a specific person in a crowded space, and monitoring behavior in social situations. System 2 completes tax forms, checks the validity of complex arguments, and can also change System 1 works by programming ordinarily automatic functions of attention and memory.

Intensely focusing activates System 2 and can effectively make us temporarily blind or deaf to stimuli that would typically attract our attention. An excellent, amusing experiment – the Invisible Gorilla Movie – was able to prove this. A short clip of people dressed in two different colors passed a ball between them. Viewers were asked to count how many times people wearing a particular color received or passed the ball. Participants who managed the task completely missed seeing the person dressed in a gorilla suit walk into the shot, beat their chest several times, and exit the scene.

System 2 doesn't manage multiple distinct choices or inputs at once very well. However, it can hold conflicting ideas and information in focus simultaneously, and it enables us to follow rules.

While System 1 might be imperfect for making decisions and influencing behavior – particularly for suiting social situations, we couldn't do without it. System 1 is as necessary as System 2 we think of as being who we are.

Finding a happy balance

Rely too much on System 1, and you are more likely to make mistakes. Ask too much of System 2, and you may have to stop everything else you are doing to allow it to function. In cases of effortful forms of thinking – using System 2 but putting time pressure on it for an answer – energy from other functions may be redirected to System 2, leaving you without the energy to see or hear someone speaking to you.

Both self-control and deliberate thought seem to draw on the same limited budget of effort and energy. What's more, System 1 has more influence over behavior when System 2 is busy, and it has a sweet tooth, too, demanding glucose to keep System 2 working. Intuition is also generated by System 1.

Fortunately, cognitive thought is not always arduous. Without exerting willpower, people can spend long periods expending considerable effort. It's known as a flow state and was studied and identified by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.

Another feature of exerting effort is the building of skill. As skill is developed, less energy is needed, and new skills are added, at least in part, to System 1's repertoire. Our lazy System 2 is more than happy to delegate to System 1, where it can.

There is a link between cognitive control and intelligence: training attention improves our executive control. Non-verbal tests of intelligence also improve. System 1 is impulsive and intuitive. System 2 is capable of reasoning, cautious, and for some people, lazy.

Finding a balance between System 1's work and the deployment of System 2 is one of the keys to thinking and reasoning well. Recognizing when we need to defer System 1's judgments and assumptions can help us make better decisions by slowing down a little and employing System 2.

Activating System 2

We are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in our behavior than hearing surprising facts about people in general. Our own experience teaches us best and understanding how our minds work using the System 1/System 2 idea, we can become more conscious of our behavior. Knowing that we like to make causal stories to explain events, people, and actions we see, a System 1 process won't stop us from doing it. But it can help us pause and think again using the more remarkable abilities of System 2. Understanding that many of our biases are generated by System 1 won't stop us from making them. Many of them are helpful in daily life – people who act friendly often are. People who are shouting are likely to be angry and thus worth avoiding.

Understanding our different thought processes, how they are generated, and where they are likely to come from, at least allows us to spot them, pause and choose a different course of thought and action.

The attentive System 2 is who we think we are. In reality, we are both, in many cases, more System 1 than 2. Our thoughts and behaviors are often guided by System 1, and generally, this works well. When we use attention and practice to develop skill, we add another arrow to System 1's quiver. The intuitive judgments and lightening choices that come to mind will mostly be accurate thanks to the adaptability and growth of System 1.

That said, System 1 is still prone to some outstanding errors of judgment and assumptions. These massive mistakes are often to do with not recognizing that information is incomplete, of low quality, or even that we are answering a more straightforward associated question than the one posed. The only way to avoid these errors is to understand that navigating through life can be a cognitive minefield. Slowing down and pushing System 2 to action is the only way we can hope to dodge the innate errors System 1.

The very nature of the slow-moving establishments and policy-making organizations makes them better at decision-making than individuals. They naturally think more slowly, with more heads and energy resources than a single person. They have the power and facilities to implement checklists and orderly procedures. If we can learn to slow our thinking and recognize when System 1 may not be up to the task, not only will we enhance our own lives and decisions, the businesses we work within will also become more robust.