How our work is influenced by Kahneman’s System 1 and 2 thinking theory

system 1 vs system 2 thinking

How our work is influenced by Kahneman’s System 1 and 2 thinking theory

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has been called “the godfather of behavioural economics” and his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” summarises decades of research into cognitive psychology and human behaviour.

At Game On we are fans of Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 thinking theory, and this has become the backbone of so much of the work we do. We are in the business of human behavioural change, improving performance and entrenching new ways of work into the organizational system and its people. As such, we like to leverage the learning from thought leaders on thinking and behaviour. First let’s quickly summarize the 2 thinking systems that Kahneman has established in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

System 1 thinking is fast and instinctual, with little effort and little control. Because it happens so quickly and automatically, decisions and tasks associated with it feel easy and natural. Unfortunately System 1 thinking is also prone to perception errors, bias and other experiential influencers.

System 2 thinking is slow and analytical, requiring time and effort. It requires focused mental activity, and decisions and tasks associated with it feel complex and demanding. Unfortunately System 2 thinking is quite a tough taskmaster, requiring massive mental effort that most people would rather avoid or bypass with the simpler, quicker System 1 thinking.

When we expose people to new knowledge or skills, for example teaching a call centre agent a new call flow, they need to use their System 2 thinking abilities. It takes extreme mental effort which consumes large amounts of mental and physical energy. Think back to the first time you drove a car and the amount of concentration it took, remember also how little awareness you had of the other vehicles on the road at the time because you were so absorbed in the process of driving. For a call center agent, this means that while they are grappling with the call flow, they can’t hear what the customer is communicating because they are too bust with the process of demanded by the call flow. If these new behaviours are not practiced, grooved and anchored in the mind, people will become overwhelmed by the complexity of using them and easily fall back on the familiar and easy System 1 thinking and behaviours. Going back to our learning to drive example, this means that if too many new skills are introduced too quickly the learner driver gets overwhelmed.

To deal with this, Game On believes in introducing new tasks gradually, ensuring that lots practice drills help to transfer the mental process from system 2 to system 1 where it can be more easily used. Just like a ball player would repeatedly kicks a ball from a difficult angle to ingrain the physical action, people at work are challenged to physically repeat tasks until they become automatic and familiar, shifting the new behaviours from the slow thinking, effortful System 2 space to the fast thinking, instinctive System 1 space.

Our people performance solutions require initial slow thinking – unpacking new knowledge and skills rationally, appealing to the focused mental analytical abilities of people. Through practice drills and supported experiential learning, new behaviours are shifted to the automatic, instinctive System 1 thinking space, ingraining new tasks and actions into sustainable, effortless workplace performance behaviour.


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  • znad says:

    Neither of these systems makes decisions. They are involved in lower level processes. What you call system 1 simply invents assocations (sets) of distant items, and System 2 rationalize through them. What Coneman and his rationalist cronies don’t want to admit is someone switch back and forth between, so-called, ‘system 1 and 2’. That reality, is precisely how, IQ tests are less valuable.

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