Post No.: 0177
This post expands on Post No.: 0057 regarding our fast, automatic and effortless ‘system one’ or intuitions, and our slow, deliberate and effortful ‘system two’ or conscious analyses…
Systems one and two are both active whenever we’re awake. System one runs automatically and in the background, whilst system two is normally in a comfortable, lazy, low-effort, no-strain mode in which only a fraction of its full capacity is engaged. System one continuously generates assessments of the environment and generates suggestions for system two (impressions, intuitions, expectations, assumptions, judgements, intentions, emotions and impulses), and if endorsed or not questioned by system two, these impressions turn into beliefs and these impulses turn into voluntary (or ‘voluntary’) actions and choices. When this all goes smoothly (which is most of the time), system two adopts the suggestions of system one with little or no modification or suppression. We therefore generally believe in our intuitive impressions and act on our desires, and that’s usually fine – but some impressions or perceptions are illusions (e.g. seeing causal relationships where there are none).
Now if system one doesn’t have a (satisfactory) answer for a problem (e.g. to solve a jumbled letter conundrum or complex computation), it calls upon system two to pay attention, to concentrate and employ more detailed, orderly and deliberate processing to solve it (well to at least try, if even system two doesn’t quite know how!) You can also feel a surge of conscious attention whenever you’re surprised – system two is activated whenever an event is detected that violates the expected internal model or mental model of the world that your system one holds (e.g. if you see a fennec fox levitating – but don’t worry because he’s a friend and he’s probably just looking for his keys again). Surprise will activate and orient your attention and you’ll search your memory banks for a story that makes sense of the surprising event.
System one is not designed to think about many things at once – to do so would require effortful thinking, which therefore calls for system two. System two is also credited for the monitoring of your own behaviour or self-control (e.g. being polite and suppressing the passage of wind when in the company of others); it slows you down to hopefully control your system one impulses, and is employed with increased effort when it detects an error is about to be made (e.g. holding you back from almost blurting out a secret). Most of what the conscious you (system two) thinks and does originates from your subconscious or unconscious (system one) – but system two takes over if/when things are perceived to be difficult. And it (normally) has the last word.
The division of labour between the two systems is normally highly efficient as it minimises effort and optimises performance – this furry arrangement works most of the time because system one and its internal model of familiar situations, short-term predictions and initial reactions to challenges are swift and generally accurate and appropriate. However, system one consists of and relies on biases – thus is prone to making systematic errors, especially in certain circumstances (e.g. when working with statistics or logic). And system one is automatic and cannot be turned off at will (e.g. if you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you won’t be able to help but read it unless you are totally distracted).
System two is associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration. When we think of ourselves, we identify with our system two – the conscious-reasoning-self that has beliefs, declares choices and declares what to think about and what to do. System two/your conscious self believes it is in charge and knows all the reasons behind its choices – but this is false because by far the vast majority of our daily decisions are borne from processes below or beyond our conscious awareness, never mind our control. Our conscious self is only the tip of the iceberg – an iceberg that is mostly hidden below or beyond our conscious awareness! Woof.
The main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate and declared choices of our system two originate from the impressions and feelings from our system one. Your system one is more influential than your experience tells you, and it’s the true secret author of most of the daily choices and judgements you make. Your subjective experiences consist largely of the story your system two tells itself about what’s going on, but your system two is surreptitiously influenced by your system one, for which you have no direct conscious access to. We are therefore mostly strangers to ourselves! There’s a stranger in control of much of what ‘you’ (as in the conscious you) do, even though you don’t naturally realise it. System one forms the tacit interpretations of what’s happening to you and around you, and links the present with the recent past and with any expectations of the future. It contains your internal model of the world that instantly evaluates events as normal or surprising. It is the source of your rapid and mostly (though not always) accurate intuitive judgements. And this all happens without you being consciously aware of its activities. But system one is also the source of many systematic errors in our intuitions. Our, more (though not perfectly) rational, system two is lazy if it thinks it can get away with being lazy, and that’s far more often than one may realise!
So system two is in charge of self-control, but there’s often a conflict between the systems (e.g. when trying to overcome an impulsive action). And overriding one’s automatic intuitive reactions, decisions or habits can be hard work – a strain – which leads one to slow down and even sometimes stumble and constantly make mistakes (e.g. when trying not to stare at someone who looks funny, forcing oneself to listen to a boring lecture, or knowing that something is just a visual illusion yet still seeing what isn’t true). During a Stroop test, system one automatically reads the word rather than the colour (because that’s what we normally do – we read words regardless of the colours of the fonts) but system two tries to override this by stating the colour and ignoring the word, which is also confusingly the word for another colour, and this conflict can cause us to stumble and make mistakes.
Here you’ll experience a conflict between a task that you intend to carry out and an automatic response that interferes with it. This actually happens a lot in daily life, and of course is most dangerous when decisions must be made quickly (e.g. not slamming the brakes during a skid). Self-control is therefore typically unreliable as a sole strategy – it is effortful, and like anything else that requires effort and energy, we will eventually get tired, run out of energy and have to give up/in. Drugs such as alcohol and being under the influence, or sleep deprivation and feeling tired, or not eating enough and feeling hungry, will also reduce our capacity for self-control.
Time pressure can also cause us all to fall back onto our intuitions or urges when it is perceived that a situation will be too much for our system two to cope with in time – so when in a rush, we default to our intuitions. This is why time pressure is a common sales tactic – retailers want their customers to act without thinking.
But people’s actual behaviours don’t always match their consciously-stated preferences, due to a conflict between their systems, even when there isn’t time pressure involved (e.g. a woman stating that she now wants a more mature man yet still falling for immature ‘boys’, or a man stating that he isn’t sexist yet still behaving with prejudice towards women). Of course, these stated preferences could genuinely change, or they’re intentional lies to protect one’s public image, but a lot of the time people rationalise their behaviours i.e. our preferences shape our behaviours, and our behaviours shape our preferences too.
Biases and errors of intuition are difficult to prevent, as system two may not even be aware of the errors that system one produces. And if it’s not even aware of these errors then it’ll have no hope of mitigating for them! (Hence why it helps to have external systems in the environment to prevent or minimise errors e.g. anti-lock braking systems in vehicles.) And even in examples such as visual illusions (never mind cognitive illusions) or learning from our dating errors (e.g. trying not to be seduced by superficial physicality or charm again) – even when we’ve been convinced with proof that our system one has made an error in perception or judgement in the past, we can still frequently not help but perceive or choose erroneously again in the future!
When we know we’ve been wrong before, we must learn to distrust our intuitive impressions, our feelings, but often even when our system two says it has learnt a lesson, our system one will still generate the intuitive impression and it’ll be hard to resist (e.g. we’ll go for that unhealthy snack again). Intuitions are just, well, too darn intuitive! Plus it can take a huge, concerted and sustained effort to be constantly hyper-vigilant to monitor and correct our (duped) thoughts or beliefs; so much that one may give up/in and thus fall back onto relying on one’s crude (and fallible) intuitions again, or it may be too late to correct by then anyway(!)
Constant vigilance and constantly questioning one’s own thinking is tedious and isn’t necessarily good for us all of the time though, and it’s certainly impractical and inefficient (system two is much too slow to serve as a substitute for system one in making routine decisions). Hyper-vigilance is highly stressful, and chronic stress isn’t good for our health. The best compromise might therefore be to recognise the situations where errors are likely and to try harder to avoid errors when the stakes are high. We can learn many things to combat our fuzzy failures of intuition – yet they’ll never feel natural to do or even remember to do.
Cognitive illusions (e.g. of remembering/memory, familiarity, thinking, truth, etc.) are actually far more stubborn and harder to recognise than visual illusions. Once informed that a visual illusion is just an illusion, one may still not help but see the illusion, but one will likely modify one’s choices and behaviours to account for the fact that it’s just an illusion – but even when informed that a cognitive illusion is just a bias, most of the time one will still not (sufficiently) modify one’s behaviours to account for this fact. One will still tend to carry on as before (e.g. we will still judge by superficial appearances, or be less critical of information that confirms our beliefs compared to information that disconfirms them). We’ll likely feel the same as before and we’ll continue to prefer to trust and follow our feelings. But our feelings are precisely what are sometimes faulty!
There are multiple influences on our subconscious or unconscious system one, and one has no easy or quick way to tease apart whether those influences are sound ones or unsound, arbitrary, superficial, irrelevant and/or externally purposely-manipulated-by-others (e.g. by commercial advertisements that play on our impulses to get us to part with our money) ones. If motivated enough, one can expend the time and effort to question every piece of information one receives, as well as constantly criticise one’s own present beliefs – but in the vast majority of occasions, lazy (and therefore frequently ignorant) conscious system two will adopt the suggestions of system one and move on. This is fine most of the time but sometimes it can lead to catastrophic errors.
Woof. The ignorance that our conscious selves generally exhibit may be bliss but ignorance can lead to errors. This is why we must learn more about ourselves.