Running on autopilot – how reliable is system 1 thinking?

Ok, before you continue reading, I want you to ask yourself a question (and if possible, map it out in your mind):

If I turned off all the lights in your house/office and you were desperate for the bathroom, would you know how to get there?

Admittedly you might stumble a bit, perhaps bump into a few walls but odds are, unless it’s a brand new place, you’d know more or less how to get there without too much trouble.

Your ability to do that with such ease is the same reason you can:

  • smell milk and know it’s gone bad without tasting it
  • look at a close family member or friend and instantly know something is wrong
  • listen to somebody sing or play an instrument and recognise when they’re off key

As humans, we like to think ourselves top of the pecking order because of our wonderfully evolved brains. But the truth is that for the most part, our decisions don’t rely on these evolutionary advances, opting instead to work in patterns and rules like most other animals.

Our brain seeks out associations and maps actions accordingly because whenever possible it looks for ways to quickly draw conclusions with minimal effort. Ruled by the amygdala, this autopilot state is commonly referred to as system 1 (Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking fast and slowis primarily responsible for this, though it was coined by psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West).  And it’s quite a clever strategy from a survival standpoint because using system 2 (rational, conscious thought ruled by the frontal lobe) takes A LOT of energy. Having recently gone back to study, I can attest to how much effort it takes to just sit down and read journal articles and textbooks when I haven’t done so for years (let’s just say many naps and a few too many candy/coffee breaks were taken)!

Unfortunately, system 1 thinking often gets a bad reputation when it really isn’t to blame. In one way, system 1 thinking is like a very highly developed system of pattern recognition and as such, it’s limited to the rules and framework it knows. It’s kind of like when you learn a new language or code or any other skill. You have to start off with the simplest of things, build your confidence and skill and apply the rules you’re taught so that you can learn the next set of more complicated ones. If you don’t know how and when to use the rules or if the rules you have simply don’t work for the situation you’re stuck in, it’s all going to be a total mess. Which means that in order to work well, you either need a really simple environment to apply the rule or you need a lot of practice to reduce the risk of error and work out when the rule should be used.

For example, let’s start with simple tasks. System 1 is the reason you know instantly that 2+2=4, that a photograph is of a man or a woman and if they’re a stranger or person you recognise and is why you can read giant billboards even as they fly past you on the freeway. It’s also the reason you can drive from home to work or school barely noticing anything from the moment you got in the car until you got out at your destination because just like a GPS, your brain will map out the most commonly taken route from a to b and only change direction if your conscious brain intervenes and makes it do so.

The criticism of system 1 happens when the application of the rule isn’t right and is why there’s so much debate about the reliability of intuitive thinking (Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein wrote a great piece on this and the two opposing schools of thought). The widely accepted approach suggests that in order for intuition to be reliable, the decision should be something you’ve seen many times before and should have as few variables as possible. In this sense, reliable intuition could be treated like mastery or the 10,000 hours necessary to really hone a skill. It’s the reason why a mother knows whether her screaming child is hungry, tired or sick, why a fireman can tell by the smoke and flame patterns what the cause of the fire is and why I and other artists know when the porcelain on a wheel is about to warp. They’ve seen or experienced these situations countless times and there are only a few possible explanations to consider because over time, other potential reasons can be ruled out and the rule fine-tuned. Put another person in that exact situation and they probably wouldn’t have a clue what to do or what to blame when things go wrong. For them, the unfamiliarity with the situation means that there are many more possible explanations. Their system 1 is frantically trying to find a rule to apply but doesn’t have access to one advanced enough to respond to that situation without making assumptions about unknowns.

If you’re like the person who finds themselves in a situation where there are lots of different factors that can influence an outcome or you haven’t quite had enough experience to perfect a rule, your intuition can easily lead you down the wrong path. For example, a company CEO who has participated in only a handful of mergers is probably less likely to be able to intuitively know whether a particular takeover will benefit his company. Interestingly, just because you’re an ‘expert’ doesn’t mean you’ll get it right either but I’ll leave that for another article.

The truth is there are lots of situations in which we incorrectly rely on system 1. For example we stereotype, get hung up on first impressions and look for evidence that fits our rules at the expense of information that may contradict it . This is largely the reason why so much time and effort has gone into studying biases and heuristics, with new discoveries continuing to emerge (system 2 has its flaws as well by the way). However, in order to be aware of when we’re not applying the right rules or when we don’t even know of their existence, we need to keep learning and practicing and as you’ve probably guessed, our rulebook for explaining system 1 isn’t exactly complete yet.

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