The discipline of consumer behaviour is by now well versed in the distinction between System 1 and System 2 modes of thinking, relating in particular to consumer judgement and decision making, with implications for marketing and retail management. Much appreciative gratitude is owed to Nobel Prize Laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman for bringing forward the concept of these thinking systems to the knowledge of the wider public (i.e., beyond academics) in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2012). ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’, though not always using these labels, have been identified and elaborated by psychologists earlier than Kahneman’s book, as the author so notes. However, Kahneman succeeds in making more crystal clear the concepts of these different modes of thinking while linking them to phenomena studied in his own previous research, most notably in collaboration with the late Amos Tversky.
In a nutshell: System 1’s type of thinking is automatic, associative and intuitive; it tends to respond quickly, but consequently it is at higher risk of jumping to wrong conclusions. It is the ‘default’ type of thinking that guides human judgement, decisions and behaviour much of the time. On the other hand, System 2’s type of thinking is deliberative, logical, critical, and effortful; it involves deeper concentration and more complex computations and rules. System 2 has to be called to duty voluntarily, activating rational thinking and careful reasoning. Whereas thinking represented by System 1 is fast and reflexive, that of System 2 is slow and reflective.
Kahneman describes and explains the role, function and effect of System 1 and System 2 in various contexts, situations or problems. In broad terms: Thinking of the System 1 type comes first; System 2 either passively adopts impressions, intuitive judgements and recommendations by System 1 or actively kicks-in for more orderly examination and correction (alas, it tends to be lazy, not in a hurry to volunteer). Just to give a taste, below is a selection of situations and problems in which Kahneman demonstrates the important differences between these two modes of thinking, how they operate and the outcomes they effect:
- # Illusions (e.g., visual, cognitive) # Use of memory (e.g., computations, comparisons) # Tasks requiring self-control # Search for causal explanations # Attending to information (“What You See Is All There Is”) # Sets and prototypes (e.g., ‘average’ vs. ‘total’ assessments) # Intensity matching # ‘Answering the easier question’ (simplifying by substitution) # Predictions (also see correlation and regression, intensity matching, representativeness) # Choice in opt-in and opt-out framing situations (e.g., organ donation)
Note: In other contexts presented by Kahneman (e.g., validity illusion [stock-picking task], choice under Prospect Theory), the author does not connect them explicitly to System 1 or System 2 so their significance may only be indirectly implied by the reader.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of System 1 and System 2 we should inspect the detailed aspects differentiating between these thinking systems. The concept of the two systems actually emerges from binding multiple dual-process theories of cognition together, thus appearing to be a larger cohesive theory of modes of thinking. Each dual process theory is usually focused on a particular dimension that distinguishes between two types of cognitive processes the human mind may utilise. However, those dimensions ‘correlate’ or ‘co-occur’, and a given theory often adopts aspects from other similar theories or adds supplementary properties; the dual-system conception hence is built on this conversion. The aspects or properties used to describe the process in each type of system are extracted from those dual-process theories. A table presented by Stanovich (2002) helps to see how System 1 and System 2 contrast in various dual-process theories. Some of those theories are: [For brevity, S1 and S2 are applied below to refer to each system.)
- S1: Associative system / S2: Rule-based system (Sloman)
- S1: Heuristic processing / S2: Analytic processing (Evans)
- S1: Tacit thought process / S2: Explicit thought process (Evans and Over)
- S1: Experiential system / S2: Rational system (Epstein)
- S1: Implicit inference / S2: Explicit inference (Johnson-Laird)
- S1: Automatic processing / S2: Controlled processing (Shiffrin and Schneider)
Note: Evans and Wason related to Type 1 vs. Type 2 processes already in 1976.
Closer to consumer behaviour: Central processing versus peripheral processing in the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty, Cacioppo & Schumann) posits a dual-process theory of routes to persuasion.
Each dual process theory provides a rich and comprehensive portrayal of two different thinking modes. The theories complement each other but they do not necessarily depend on each other. The boundaries between the two types of process are not very sharp, that is, features of the systems are not all exclusive in the sense that a particular property associated with a process of System 1 may occur in a System 2 process, and vice versa. Furthermore, the processes also interact with one another, particularly in a way where System 2 relies on products of thought from System 1, either approving them or using them as a starting-point for further analysis. Nevertheless, occasionally System 2 may generate reasons for us merely to justify a choice made by System 1 (e.g., a consumer likes a product for the visual appearance of its packaging or its design).
Stanovich follows the table of theories with a comparison of properties describing System 1 versus System 2 as derived from a variety of dual process theories, but without attributing them to any specific theory (e.g., holistic/analytic, relatively fast/slow, highly contextualized/decontextualized). Comparative lists of aspects or properties have been offered by other researchers as well. Evans (2008) formed a comparative list of more than twenty attributes which he divided into four clusters (describing System 1/System 2):
- Cluster 1: Consciousness (e.g., unconscious/conscious, automatic/controlled, rapid/slow, implicit/explicit, high capacity/low capacity)
- Cluster 2: Evolution (e.g., evolutionary old/recent, nonverbal/linked to language)
- Cluster 3: Functional characteristics (e.g., associative/rule-based, contextualized/abstract, parallel/sequential)
- Cluster 4: individual differences (universal/heritable, independent of/linked to general intelligence, independent of/limited by working memory capacity).
Listings of properties collated from different sources (models, theories), interpreted as integrative profiles of System 1 and System 2 modes of thinking, may yield a misconception of the distinction between the two systems as representing an over-arching theory. Evans questions whether it is really possible and acceptable to tie the various theories of different origins under a common roof, suggested as an over-arching cohesive theory of two systems (he identifies problems residing mainly with ‘System 1’). It could be more appropriate to approach the dual-system presentation as a paradigm or framework to help one grasp the breadth of aspects that may distinguish between two types of cognitive processes and obtain a more comprehensive picture of cognition. The properties are not truly required to co-occur altogether as constituents of a whole profile of one system or the other. In certain domains of judgement or decision problems, a set of properties may jointly describe the process entailed. Some dual process theories may take different perspectives on a similar domain, and hence the aspects derived from them are related and appear to co-occur.
Evans confronts a more widely accepted ‘sequential-interventionist’ view (as described above) with a ‘parallel-competitive’ view.
People use a variety of procedures and techniques to form judgements, make decisions or perform any other kind of cognitive task. Stanovich relates the structure, shape and level of sophistication of the mental procedures or algorithms of thought humans can apply, to their intelligence or cognitive capacity, positioned at the algorithmic level of analysis. Investing more effort in more complicated techniques or algorithms entailed in rational thinking is a matter of volition, positioned at the intentional level (borrowed from Dennett’s theorizing on consciousness).
However, humans do not engage a great part of the time in thought close to the full of their cognitive capacity (e.g., in terms of depth and efficiency). According to Stanovich, we should distinguish between cognitive ability and thinking dispositions (or styles). The styles of thinking a person applies do not necessarily reflect everything one is cognitively capable of. Put succinctly, the fact that a person is intelligent does not mean that he or she has to think and act rationally; one has to choose to do so and invest the required effort into it. When one does not, it opens the door for smart people to act stupidly. Furthermore, the way a person is disposed to think is most often selected and executed unconsciously, especially when the thinking disposition or style is relatively fast and simple. Cognitive styles that are entailed in System 1, characterised as intuitive, automatic, associative and fast, are made to ease the cognitive strain on the brain, and they are most likely to occur unconsciously or preconsciously. Still, being intuitive and using heuristics should not imply a person will end up acting stupidly — some would argue his or her intuitive decision could be more sensible than one made when trying to think rationally; it may depend on how thinking in the realm of System 1 happens — if one rushes while applying an inappropriate heuristic or relying on an unfitting association, he or she could become more likely to act stupidly (or plainly, ‘being stupid’).
Emotion and affect are more closely linked to System 1. Yet, emotion should not be viewed ultimately as a disruptor of rationality. As proposed by Stanovich, emotions may fulfill an important adaptive regulatory role — serving as interrupt signals necessary to achieve goals, avoiding entanglement in complex rational thinking that only keeps one away from a solution, and reducing a problem to manageable dimensions. In some cases emotion does not disrupt rationality but rather help to choose when it is appropriate and productive to apply a rational thinking style (e.g., use an optimization algorithm, initiate counterfactual thinking). By switching between two modes of thinking, described as System 1 and System 2, one has the flexibility to choose when and how to act in reason or be rational, and emotion may play the positive role of a guide.
The dual-system concept provides a way of looking broadly at cognitive processes that underlie human judgement and decision making. System 1’s mode of thinking is particularly adaptive by which it allows a consumer to quickly sort out large amounts of information and navigate through complex and changing environments. System 2’s mode of thinking is the ‘wise counselor’ that can be called to analyse the situation more deeply and critically, and provide a ‘second opinion’ like an expert. However, it intervenes ‘on request’ when it receives persuasive signals that its help is required. Consideration of aspects distinguishing between these two modes of thinking by marketing and retail managers can help them to better understand how consumers conduct themselves and cater to their needs, concerns, wishes and expectations. Undertaking this viewpoint can especially help, for instance, in the area of ‘customer journeys’ — studying how thinking styles direct or lead the customer or shopper through a journey (including emotional signals), anticipating reactions, and devising methods that can alleviate conflicts and reduce friction in interaction with customers.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
(1) Thinking, Fast and Slow; Daniel Kahneman, 2012; Penguin Books.
(2) Rationality, Intelligence, and Levels of Analysis in Cognitive Science (Is Dysrationalia Possible); Keith E. Stanovich, 2002; in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (Robert J. Sternberg editor)(pp. 124-158), New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
(3) Dual-Processing Accounts of Reasoning, Judgment and Social Cognition; Jonathan St. B. T. Evans, 2008; Annual Review of Psychology, 59, pp. 255-278. (Available online at psych.annualreviews.org, doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093629).