The benefits of being in two minds



Are you the “lazy” or the “deliberate” thinker? Why can’t we have a hybrid?

Something has been bugging me for quite a while – how difficult it is to strike a balance between thinking fast, albeit impulsively and intuitively, and the slower, more cautious and deliberated sort of thinking.

Pause for a moment and observe your surroundings.

Consider my friend, Mr W. He makes snap judgments and decisions, rattles off the first thing on his mind without bothering whether what he says makes any sense. Unfortunately, he often annoys the ones around him. This is what psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West refer to as System 1. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, and is effortless. This system likes to avoid choices as much as possible, and often select the default option. System 1 is also what we utilise when we are driving.

On the other extreme end, meet my other friend, Mr F. He pauses and deliberates on his choice of words before he talks and makes any decisions. This sometimes borders on overanalysing, especially when the decision can be as small as what to have for lunch. This is System 2 at work, often associated with deductive reasoning and is honestly an awful lot of work.

The differences in the thinking processes of System 1 and 2 are perhaps the most distinct and observable in the economics classes I have tutored. During class participation, there are always students who seemingly accept and offer a superficially plausible answer that comes readily to mind. Often, these answers are what we see as illogical and irrational in economics. System 1 is the greatest source of irrationality and appears to be the bad guy in this story.

However, System 1 is not irrational all the time. For example, System 1’s accomplishment includes the ability to provide “expert intuition”, in which with much practice, a trained expert such as a doctor of firefighter can unconsciously go with their gut feeling and produce the right response to complex emergencies.

Then, there is another group of students who would take a minute or two to think before offering a more rational and logical answer.

In Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he presents our thinking process as consisting of two systems: System 1 and 2. Kahneman claims that there is too much going on in our lives for System 2 to analyse everything. So, System 2 has to pick its moments with care, and is “lazy” out of necessity.

I am increasingly convinced that there exists a polarisation in the degree to which either system of thinking is utilised by people on a daily basis. Most of us seem to be either mainly a System 1 or a System 2 thinker.

Some people are closer to their system 1, like Mr W. I am always marvelled at the ease with which people such as Mr W are able to convince themselves that the first thing that comes to their mind is always right. At this point, I am tempted to jump the gun and categorise Mr W as a “lazy” thinker. But that would make me a “lazy” thinker as well.

There are others who are closer to their System 2 like Mr F, who possibly belongs to a small elite group of proficient System 2 people, far shrewder than System 1 people. These are the “engaged” thinkers; Stanovich would call them more rational, but not necessarily more intelligent.

However, I would like to think that the degree in which we tend to favour either system of thinking is habitual and something that can be consciously changed – perhaps not totally, but in a manner that benefits us. Ideally, System 1 thinkers should start to observe and recognise the errors that originate from this system of thinking, and learn to pause and seek reinforcement from System 2 in appropriate situations. On the other hand, System 2 thinkers should know that it is unnecessary to think critically in all situations, although it can be disastrous in other situations. However, allowing our intuition and gut feeling to take over in some situations can be good.

Organisations and governments are also able to help by using behavioural economics in their policies and decision-making processes. In fact, this is exactly what the US government did. It recognised that many of us undoubtedly are more prone to System 1’s manner of thinking. To tackle the problem of inadequate retirement saving in defined contribution plans, under the sponsorship of the US congress, Richard Thaler and Shlomo Benartzi of the Anderson School at UCLA have developed a plan called Save More Tomorrow (SMT). The SMT plan is a financial plan that firms can offer their employees. Those who sign on allow the employer to increase their contribution to their saving plan by a fixed proportion whenever they receive a raise. The increased saving rate is implemented automatically until the employee gives notice that she wants to opt out of it.

So why does this appeal to the System 1 thinker? In developing the plan, the authors addressed the issue of procrastination, which economists refer to as inertia. For example, the authors recognise that most workers may never bother to increase their savings rate over time. By making future increases in savings rate automatic, the plan eliminates the need for additional actions on the part of the participant. Besides, inertia is often so powerful that few will ever get round to opting out once enrolled in the plan. This plan has managed to align the laziness of System 2 with the long-term interests of the workers, recognising that System 1 likes the default option.

It is difficult to come to a consensus on which system of thinking is more superior than the other, particularly when both systems are essential in our everyday lives. The ability to combine elements of both System 1 and 2 thinking into a hybrid system of thinking for everyday lives will present ongoing challenges and implications for policymaking. This goes to re-emphasise a long-known fact that policies built on the concept of Homo economicus are inappropriate. The ability for governments and institutions to tailor policies to the needs of “hybrid” human beings will be important – and perhaps it will make a crucial difference for society.