The Two Types of Thinking

Humans have two distinct systems for solving problems, both of which have their place. Psychologist Keith Stanovich termed these simply System 1 Thinking and System 2 Thinking.

System 1 Thinking System 2 Thinking
Automatic Deliberate
Effortless Effortful
Faster to act Slower to act
Slower to adapt Faster to adapt
Habitual Intellectual
Reactive Proactive
Specific-purpose General-purpose

When we instinctively reach out to catch a ball, or habitually snap at a loved one or co-worker, we are using System 1 thinking. When we carefully consider the positive and negative consequences of a set of possible actions, before deciding which to take, we are using System 2 thinking.

Creating a habit can be thought of as the process of training System 1 to behave in a way deemed beneficial as the result of System 2 thinking. If you have ever deliberately made a positive habit or broken a bad one, you know how much effort it takes. Nonetheless, we can do this when we are sufficiently motivated.

System 1 thinking is absolutely the best way to go when the situations you are facing are highly similar to previous situations you’ve faced over and over. Managers who have honed their System 1 thinking and are in a position to apply it are effective and powerful— they project a sense of mastery. In fact, System 1 thinking at its best can literally seem magical. For example, magicians such as Penn & Teller use painstaking System 2 thinking to develop their illusions, and then practice them to the point where they require no System 2 thinking at all to perform, no matter how spontaneous they may seem to onlookers. Every possibility in performance is handled by System 1 thinking.

Penn & Teller Demonstrate System 1 Thinking

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Unfortunately, when business conditions change many managers continue to apply the same System 1 thinking and cannot understand why the company’s situation continues to decline. Why is this? It is certainly not that companies move on such a short time scale that only System 1 thinking is applicable. And it is also not often a shortage of managers trained in System 2 thinking.

The answer is that applying System 2 thinking in an organizational context requires managers to shed their “cloak of invincibility” and demonstrate willingness to re-think the organization’s processes as a unified system rather than as a collection of parts. This usually requires the input of all stakeholders and the help of methodical analysts trained in systems thinking techniques such as the Theory of Constraints. The apparent loss of direct control this kind of program entails is what causes managers to resist. But the positive view (setting aside the potential for great improvement in the business itself) is that successful implementation of such comprehensive change is a true leadership challenge to which only the best managers rise.

Work to increase your awareness of the roles that System 1 and System 2 thinking play in your personal and work life, and let that awareness provide you additional choices— both for solving problems and for taking advantage of opportunities that come your way.

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3 thoughts on “The Two Types of Thinking

  1. An interesting dichotomy.

    My take-away from studying “neo-realism” in poli-sci is related; I concluded that there were basically two different and contrasting modes of “being”: the first is predicated on projecting a world-view and its sets of opinions and assessment … enter “convince” and “compel” along with “control” and “conquer”. But I don’t just want my interlocuter to obey my spin … so there’s a mode that engages in reality-testing (Socratic method and dialectic!), which entails collaboration and true discourse.

    “Make a plan; make it work” is fine for air traffic controllers, but it’s ghastly when applied in the realm of, say, public policy!


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