The World of Work Project

Dual Process Theory

Dual process theory says that humans have two systems for thinking. System 1 is unconscious, quick, makes use of shortcuts, is a bit sloppy but is relied upon most of the time. System 2 is intentional, calculated and often more accurate, but it takes effort and is slow.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Dual Process Theory

Dual process theory is a framework used to explain how people think which traces its roots back to William James (an American philosopher and psychologist active in the late 19th and early 20th century). At its core is the idea that humans have two different streams or means of thinking, thus the phrase dual process.

Our lives are pulled forward by two types of thinking: System 1 and System 2.

These dual processes are sometimes referred to as “systems” and known as “system 1” and ”system 2”. System 1 is evolutionarily older, more automatic, instinctive, implicit and unconscious. System 2 is evolutionarily newer, intentional, effortful, explicit and conscious.

Dual process theory continues to evolve. It remains a popular framework in the field of cognitive psychology and has some applications in learning theory and in relation to how humans process and store information. More recently it has sprung up in behavioral economics as well with Danny Kahneman’s interpretations captured in his excellent book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, which helped bring these concepts to the mainstream.

Dual process theory also has a key role to play in understanding how we make decisions.

When we’re using System 1 thinking, we’re in drive and things happen automatically.

System 1: Our automatic processor

Humans constantly function. The majority of time we do so without really thinking about it. We know what our senses are telling us and we know what they mean we should do.

Me huuuuuungry. Me eat.

If we’re hungry, we should eat. If we’re a bit tired, we should sleep. If we see some information we dislike, we should ignore it… or perhaps not. We don’t think about walking. We don’t calculate the trajectory of our steps. We don’t use our knowledge of physics to help us throw a ball. All of these things come naturally.

We’ve developed rules, internal processes and shortcuts in our thinking and decision making that help us survive without conscious effort. And it’s this system of automatic processing that’s known as System 1. We use it to get along in our daily lives without really needing to try too hard or think too much. We also find that the more tired we are, the more we use System 1.

This is economic in many ways. It’s fast too, allowing us to respond almost instantly in many situations. It’s also often reasonably accurate and effective and it reserves our mental energy for draining thoughtful effort when it’s really required. It does though, rely on generalities and is prone to some sloppy errors.

System 1: Characteristics

System 1 has lots of different characteristics. Some of the most important ones are as follow:

System 1 lets the brain relax…
  • It’s unconscious (intuition, subconscious),
  • Mostly involuntary,
  • Mostly linked to emotions (“gut feeling”),
  • Implicit,
  • Automatic,
  • Low effort,
  • Large capacity,
  • Rapid,
  • More subjective / value based,
  • Evolutionarily old, and
  • Creative.

System 2, Our controlled thinking

Sometimes we, as humans, find ourselves in situations where we either don’t have mental shortcuts that we can use, or where we need to be more than just reasonably accurate.

System 2 thinking is conscious and controlled.

In these circumstances we need to focus on our thoughts. We need to consciously think our way through key factors and reach logical, calculated, informed decisions. To do this we need to slow our thinking down. We ignore our mental shortcuts, we start from the building blocks of information that we have and use logic to reach decisions and conclusions.

This way of thinking is known as System 2 thinking, and often produces better (or at least more reasoned) answers for us, but it’s effortful and it’s slow. This process is excellent in some environments and situations, but dreadful in others. If you rely on system 2 to calculate the moment when a leaping tiger will reach you and plot your escape, then you’ll never finish your calculations.

System 2: Characteristics

System 2 has lots of different characteristics. Some of the most important ones are as follow:

System 2 thinking requires focus and energy
  • It’s conscious,
  • Mostly voluntary,
  • Mostly detached from emotions,
  • Explicit,
  • Controlled,
  • High effort,
  • Small capacity,
  • Slow,
  • More objective (and fact / rule based),
  • Evolutionarily recent,
  • Logical and rational.

Dual process theory in work

Many of the challenges that individuals and leaders face in the world of work stem from the very natural tendency for individuals to predominantly use System 1 thinking as opposed to System 2 thinking.

System 1 can lead to negative outcomes.

In fact, most cases of sloppy thinking by otherwise capable individuals probably result from their use of System 1 thinking. And this is entirely natural. System 2 thinking requires a lot more effort, and a lot more focus. And this means that to use System 2, individuals normally need to be more motivated.

From a leadership perspective it’s helpful to be aware of these two different types of thinking. The more you can use system 2 thinking yourself, the better the decisions that you make will probably be. And similarly, the more you can help your team use system 2 thinking, the better their decisions will probably be.

The World of Work Project View

We love dual process theory and think it’s a great framework through which to understand your own thinking and decision making processes. We recommend reading “Thinking, fast and slow” and believe that the better your appreciation of your own thought processes is, the more effective of a thinker you will be.

We also think that there is a good chance that understanding your thinking and decision making processes (see metacognition) may help improve your emotional intelligence, motivation and happiness.

We recommend discussing the distinction between the two different systems with your team. By increasing your team members’ understanding of dual process theory, and introducing common language in relation to it, it’s possible to more easily challenge sloppy thinking and increase performance.

It’s also worth noting that the heuristics of System 1 thinking are the domain in which things like unconscious bias live.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

Most of the information used as the basis for this post comes from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow“.


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