Two Types of Thinking
Updated: Sep 17
Tell me the first thing you did when you woke up this morning. For real. Think about it!
Did you make your bed, take a shower, go to the bathroom? What about before that? Before getting out of bed? Before opening your eyes?
No matter who you are, the answer is always the same: thinking. Whether or not you’re aware of it, from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep at night, thoughts are appearing and disappearing inside your brain. They are persistent yet fleeting, simultaneously intangible but ever-present.
Thoughts are the manifestation of our underlying mental processes. They are the way we interact with our environment, the stream of our consciousness, a steering wheel controlling the direction of our lives from moment to moment. On a personal level, we’re all intimately familiar with the types of thoughts we have and when we have them, but understanding how and why thoughts happen is a far more complicated matter.
While our genetics, our upbringing, and our current situation all have a unique influence on our thoughts, human brains are fairly similar to one another. Many aspects of the way we think are universal, common to every one of us. Our thoughts can be analyzed and categorized, and with enough data, we find patterns embedded in our mental processes. One of the simplest and most important patterns we’ve found concerns speed: some of our thoughts come to us automatically and instantaneously, but others are much slower, requiring effort and concentration. In his 2011 bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes this phenomenon as “two modes of thought”, which he calls System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is fast thought: natural and intuitive, it’s so quick we almost never notice we’re thinking. It’s our default mode of thought and we employ it in the majority of situations we encounter, but it generally floats below the level of conscious realization. Are you thinking about how you’re reading these words? How your brain is looking at squiggles on a page and translating them into sounds and saying those sounds to you, inside your head, automatically? Well, now you’re thinking about it, but you probably weren’t before I mentioned it.
Fast thoughts are used for much more than reading, of course. We make constant judgements about what we experience in daily life: the sunset is beautiful tonight, I don’t like the food I ordered, it’s too cold in here. Our interpersonal thoughts also tend to be fast ones: he only thinks about himself; she should be stricter with her kids; I wish I could play the piano as they do. System 1 is designed for simplicity, consistency, and coherence to our worldview. Sometimes our thinking is inaccurate, such as when we instinctively use stereotypes to classify others, but fast thoughts are designed to keep us moving through life without being paralyzed by what’s going on inside our head.
System 2 is slow thought, the complicated and taxing mode of thinking that we use only when needed. In situations that require conscious effect, complex reasoning, or can’t be processed by System 1, we concentrate and direct our mental capacity to find an adequate response. We are more aware of our thinking when using the slower system, and slow thoughts can be initiated consciously, unlike fast ones. System 2 is a tool to think critically about our reality and analyze problems and information from a more objective perspective.
Slow thinking helps us solve tough problems and see the world around us more accurately, but fast thoughts do exist for a reason. Most of the mundane tasks in our daily lives don’t need to be analyzed in detail, and System 1 makes sure we don’t waste our time with them. To use the example from above, does thinking critically about the mental processes behind reading this sentence help you read it better or more accurately? Not really — fast thinking works well here. The trick is learning to recognize when fast thinking is giving us false information, such as when we judge others using implicit biases. In a situation such as this one, we may choose to use slower thought to get a more accurate picture of the situation. Stay tuned for future posts detailing how you can identify when fast thinking fails and use slow thinking to find a better response.