Completing the Picture – Part II: System 1 vs. System 2 Thinking

System 1 vs. System 2 may simply be a more up-to-date and insightful way of looking at what advertising researchers have historically referred to as “low involvement” versus “high involvement” processing. System 1 “fast” thinking refers to the automatic processes of the mind that operate below the level of consciousness, while System 2 “slow” thinking refers to the more deliberate, conscious processes that we identify with rational decision-making (see Exhibit 1).

The primary job of System 1 is to continuously assess the situation of the world around us and to give us updates as to what is going on. It includes instinctual actions that we share with other animals—such as reactions to loud noises.

It is the default mode of our perceiving mind, and as such appears to be effortless, automatic, and unconscious. Indeed we appear to have no conscious self-awareness or control over the operations of System 1.

Screen shot 2013-01-29 at 10.34.02 AM

At its core, System 1 works through the process of associative memory. It continuously intuits causal connections between words and images, feelings and actions, ideas and memories in order to build a coherent interpretation of life as we experience it. It is our internal storyteller.

For example, System 1 processing is key to our ability to watch movies. It is not at all obvious why the process of cutting up visual experience and rejoining it in non-linear ways that violate the continuity of real life should be anything but confusing. But it is precisely the ability of the mind to rapidly see connections between discrete images flowing in a stream toward the eye and to make the perceptual leap of interpreting a meaning or inferring a causality of action between juxtaposed visual moments that make moving pictures such an emotionally powerful form of storytelling.

One of the defining characteristics of System 1 thinking is the phenomenon that Kahneman describes as “What You See Is All There Is.”  By this he means to say that System 1 pays no attention to what it does not know.  It only works with ideas that have been primed and activated in the system. Like the blind spot in the rear view mirror, it cannot see gaps in logic. As a result, it rapidly reaches conclusions and makes decisions with a minimum amount of information. Less information is more for System 1 thinking. As Kahneman cheekily points out, System 1 is our mental system for leaping to conclusions.

In contrast, System 2 thinking is pretty much what we mean when we attempt to describe rational thought and rational decision-making. It is a controlled mental process requiring a great deal of effort in terms of focusing our attention.

System 2 is the system involved in doing work, making friends, building family and social relationships. It exerts self-control and creates self-awareness. It is logical, skeptical, and seeks out new or missing information in order to improve its ability to make decisions.

The problem with System 2 is that it is an energy-intensive process. The more tasks it takes on, the more energy it requires. As a result, System 2 attempts to conserve energy by doing as little work as possible and when feeling cognitive strain, defaults to System 1.  In short, System 2 is powerful but lazy.

Both systems are important for understanding how advertising works. Once it’s engaged, System 2 usually has the final say in economic decision-making—though that may simply be to rationalize a System 1 decision that feels good. But it’s clear to anyone working in the business that much of modern advertising operates by engaging System 1, which requires little cognitive strain on the part of the consumer.

Come back next week where we will continue our discussion with Experiencer Self vs. Remembered Self.

Please contact Sonya Duran ( if you would like a copy of the full paper.

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3 Responses to Completing the Picture – Part II: System 1 vs. System 2 Thinking

  1. ztech says:

    System 1 deals with compexity.

  2. sandra Quezada says:

    I like it. This reading help me understand more about this topic. My question to you is, so both systems are use in some situations. Or are we using either one for specific situations.

    • Chuck Young says:

      This is a great question! They’re both working and doing different or similar tasks depending on the situation. System 1 is the one always in play as it’s scanning your environment. It’s automatic (like driving your car home and wondering how you got there). Vs. System 2, which comes into play in specific situations, solving a math problem, making a recipe, riding a bike, etc. Things that require attention in order to do or process.

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