Thinking, fast and slow


In “Thinking, fast and slow”, Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman talks about our mind. To explain our mind inner workings, he defines two actors, he divides our mind into two systems, “System 1” and “System 2”. “System 1” is fast, instinctive and emotional; It operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

He describes System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of our beliefs and choices. He describes System 1 with some examples of automatic activities:

  • Detect that one object is more distant than another.
  • Orient to the source of a sudden sound.
  • Detect hostility in a voice.
  • Answer to 2 + 2 = ?
  • Drive a car on an empty road.

System 2 require attention and get disrupted when attention is drawn away. Here are some examples:

  • Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room.
  • Monitor the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation.
  • Count the occurrences of the letter a in a page of text.
  • Tell someone your phone number.
  • Park in a narrow space
  • Fill out a tax form.
  • Check the validity of a complex logical argument.

Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and requires very less effort and energy from you. System 2 is expensive, slow and needs much  more effort and burn most of the glucose in your brain. It is hard to activate System 2. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires.

When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 for help. System 2 is activated when System 1 does not offer an answer, e.g. what is 17 × 24?

System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior. You need System 2 for self-control. That’s why you need attention and effort for self control.

Active mind engages System 2 more often. However, majority of people, 50% of students at Harvard, MIT and Princeton avoided to activate their System 2. The number goes to 80% in less selective universities. Now, you can imagine where does the general population must  be standing.

You can raise your intelligence by improving the control of attention.

In other words, to be mentally active, to be intelligent means you are  engaging your System 2 more often than the norm.

Specially at work, where you are hard pressed for time, people are talking, communicators popping up messages, continuous mails are flowing in  and you need to reply quick. You are surviving because of your System 1, but in a hurry you may be making many mistakes too.

Now the question remains how to engage System 2 more often and rely less on System 1?

One easy technique, I found is for any issue at work, any design decisions, you quietly open a note book in your mind, divide the page  into two columns, “pro” and “cons”, and start listing the pros and cons of any issue. This act will actually activate your System 2. This will often makes you slow, but the outcome will be much better.

If system 2 is so important, then how can I keep it in good shape and lubricated the machinery to activate it more often with ease?

I think, to keep System 2 engage continuously is to remain mindful.

Continuously keep watching yourself.  Keep watching your thoughts. To keep System 2 healthy – meditate daily!

The easier for you to activate your System 2 the better you will be.

System 2 makes you thoughtful and intelligent.



On the similar lines, long back, I wrote a blog E=Com+ before I knew about System 1 and 2. Where I was suggesting to see any design issue from different angles and those different dimensions where turned into a mnemonics for easy remembrance E=COMPLUS. What I meant from this mnemonics is every design should be seen from the following point of views –  extensiblity, complexity, operability, maintainibility, performance, localization, usability and security. You can read more detailed explanation of it in the original post.

I highly recommend “Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman.  You will find lot many Perl of wisdom in this book.


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