You stumble out of the wilderness, having had no contact with humans for at least ten days. You’re weak from hunger and fatigue and you find yourself at a crossroads, power lines stretching out along each of the separate roadways. It’s decision time. You think about Robert Frost’s poem, and wonder if his advice to take the road less traveled might not just lead to your demise. What do you do, or more importantly, which brain system should you use to make this crucial decision?
Daniel Kahneman, famed psychologist, winner of the Nobel prize for prospect theory and author of Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow might be the one guy to call, assuming your existential crossroads gets cellphone reception.
Kahneman explains that we have two systems for making decisions. He refers to them simply as System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is reflexive, automatic, and impulsive. It takes a constant reading of your surroundings and generates short-term predictions, all operating on a level beneath your everyday notice. When Freud talked about subconscious associations, he was discussing a function of System 1.
System 2, by contrast, is what allows you to focus on boring tasks, search your memory to identify something unusual, monitor the appropriateness of your behavior, and so on. You can think of it as the rational mind if you’d like, although it can be lazy to intervene on System 1’s shenanigans.
Your gut might tell you to take the road on the right. This is System 1 at work, unaware that being right-handed has over the years biased you to feel more comfortable moving in that direction. Studies show that whether entering a building or looking at products on a lineup, we tend to gravitate toward the side of our dominant hand.
On the other hand (so to speak), if you force your System 2 in play, you survey the situation and launch into analytical mode. Rejecting hunches or easy answers, you look for wear in the roads. Perhaps even the litter along the grass might give up clues as to what lies ahead or behind you. This might be a matter of life and death, so extreme deliberation is called for.
Your analytical brain might even recognize your own System 1 bias towards your dominant-hand side, so you are especially determined not to be led down that rabbit hole without a fight. Despite your hunger and thirst, you will use whatever information you can glean from your surroundings to make the most informed decision possible.
But as Kahneman points out, when we’re hungry and tired, our rational thinking and personal willpower begin to suffer mightily. The erstwhile fighter Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In Tyson’s case, the insight was probably quite literal. Taken in a broader context, it tells the story of the brain’s limited ability to stay on task when confronted with a degradation of food, sleep or energy.
System 1 and System 2, which is believed to be the newer, shinier system, both have unique characteristics and given a particular situation work amazingly well.
System 1 can get a bad rap. It’s irrational, and it gets us into trouble sometimes. It weighs some pieces of information over others and it loves shortcuts. (Flaws in your System 1 thinking are why you can be fooled by optical illusions.) It also has a huge bias towards noticing and avoiding danger. While this generates plenty of false alarms and irrational fears (System 1 reacts emotionally to even seeing the word ‘crime’), sometimes you want to jump to conclusions.
As you were pondering your two roads dilemma, if a semi truck happened to come roaring around the corner from out of nowhere, you’d hope it wouldn’t take much analysis to dive out of the way. You could thank System 1 for letting you make that leap without waiting to find out the make and model of the truck as it bore down on you.
Luckily, the scenario I describe is theoretical. Besides, you would have never hiked out into the wilderness without GPS, an adequate food supply, and a backup power supply for your smartphone. Planning and preparation are what the boy scouts and System 2 share in common.
But let’s face it, System 1 is probably the real hero of the story. Without your impulses, emotions, and warm memories of the smell of pine, what’s the chance you’d actually martial the energy to go out in the wilderness hiking in the first place?
The beauty of System 1 is that it’s there to remind you just how lazy you truly are. And as it’s done for countless generations before you, it’s there primarily to keep you alive.