Automatic System 1 and Deliberative System 2

[ This is post #6 in the series, “Finding reality in a post truth world.” ]

What happens when you view this image? Most people immediately sense anger, and possibly danger. If you encountered this person on the street, you might very well back away. You would probably be very cautious if you engaged in a conversation with this man. All this takes place with no analysis. It’s an instinctive reaction. The picture is devoid of context, but your brain instantly created one.

Welcome to Automatic System 1, which instantaneously combines the senses with past experience and conjugates future actions based on that. This system is what, despite the inadequacies of our senses, allowed us to prosper as a species. It would be a mistake to think this system is a purely sensory one, though. Automatic System 1 combines memories of past experiences with current sensory inputs and creates heuristics to help us avoid dangerous time-consuming analysis in the face of danger. It’s what enables us to imagine a full fledged lion even though we see only a small portion of its head. It tells us to be wary of strangers. It teaches us that effect follows cause, and that our three dimensional picture of the world is accurate enough to guide our actions.

It works in conjunction with the Deliberative System 2, but often overrides it. While this joint effort is what enabled us to get to the moon, it also misfires regularly enough to cause wars, economic crises, and pandemics that rage out of control.

( By the way, you may be wondering why I don’t use Kahneman’s “System 1” and “System 2”. I found that people who are new to this concept spend a lot of time trying to remember which system is which, so I added an adjective to clear that up. On the other hand, my goal is to get people interested in reading the original text, so I didn’t want to drop the nomenclature used by Kahneman either. The result is my somewhat clumsy compromise, which you may also see abbreviated as “AS1” and “DS2” once the original terms have been properly introduced in each post. )

We like to think that we’re beyond impulsive thinking and that our day is exclusively in the domain of the Deliberative System 2. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Kahneman points out, all of us not only regularly use each system, but we also succumb to the logical errors that crop us when AS1 overwhelms DS2.

Take a day for an average person. Below, the actions that can be characterized by dominance of AS1 are italicized and red. The actions that are dominated by DS2 are bolded and blue.

You take your dog for a morning walk. When you cross the street, you see a car in the distance. You cross the street.

You look at your smartwatch and see that you’ve gone 1,500 steps. You do a calculation in your head and realize you have to go 1,800 more steps to complete a mile.

You see someone you don’t know coming down the path. They’re wearing a hoodie and sunglasses. You go to the other side of the street.

At the grocery store, there are two different sizes of coffee. You try to figure out which one is priced better by computing the cost per ounce.

One of the coffee brands is more expensive per ounce but it’s labeled “organic.” You buy that one.

Driving to work, a bicyclist comes down the sidewalk to your right. You almost hit him as you go to make a right hand turn, even though you had checked traffic to your left.

On the radio, you hear a news item about a terrorist attack. You shake your head as you calculate that the odds of you getting hurt while driving are thousands of times higher than getting killed by a terrorist.

At work, you click on the icon to bring up a spreadsheet.

Your intern, Sam, asks you how to load a spreadsheet. You tell him, but with some impatience in your voice. How can he not figure out something that obvious?

You develop a way to combine data from five different spreadsheets and show the results in a chart.

Sam had a rough week last week, but this week he’s doing much better. You attribute this to a stern talk you had with him at the end of the week. You pride yourself on being a good manager.

The drive home is total stop and go. You find yourself abnormally exhausted when you get home.

On the way home, you pass by the decommissioned San Onofre nuclear power plant. You’re glad they’re no longer in business. You feel safer.

At home, you see a container of Roundup on the garage shelf. You throw it out, because you just heard a jury awarded millions of dollars to someone who claimed they got cancer from it.

You want to prepare a surprise meal for your partner. You calculate the cooking times for all the ingredients, so you’ll know what to prep in advance and when to start cooking each one.


You get the idea. Automatic vs. deliberative. Most of the above examples may seem obvious, but there are some that might surprise you. For example, the reactions to “organic” food, the weed killer, and the nuclear power plant. Aren’t these the results of careful deliberation? In most cases, no. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that anytime we “analyze” something, we’re employing Deliberative System 2. The problem is, as often as not, our “analysis” is nothing more than a combination of Automatic System 2 preconceptions and heuristics.

What exacerbates this problem is the sheer volume of information bombarding our brains every minute of the day. Even if one is an expert in a single field, that is no guarantee of good thinking in every other field. There are around 30,000 scientific journals, with close to 2 million articles. That means that an orthopedic surgeon will be almost overwhelmed keeping up with just her field, and perhaps she’ll even have to specialize in hips and knees. For neurology, she’ll have to “trust the experts,” just like everyone else. The fact that she had to go through ten years of training doesn’t guarantee anything as far as choosing which experts to listen to. Only a clear sense of AS1 and DS2 and how they interplay in each situation will do that.

That, I believe, is one of the biggest problems we face in modern society. Many of us mistakenly believe that expertise in one field implies mastery in all fields. Many others, having been thoroughly disappointed by experts, have become cynics who believe that reality is what they think. Both of these approaches are anathema to scientific skepticism: the questioning of all claims unless they can be empirically tested and reproduced.

Before we can fully embrace scientific skepticism, though, we have to be aware of the ways AS1 can disrupt DS2. To do this, we have to stop regarding this as a problem of “other people.” It is our problem. It is a purely human condition.

And it’s worth examining. There is no better example than the pandemic and the way it has been approached by people whose reaction is dominated by beliefs that have been corrupted by Automatic System 1 vs. those who plan responses based on Deliberative System 2. In countries where the response has been characterized by AS1, we see death counts that are hundreds of times greater than those where DS2 has ruled. The U.S., as of November 5, had 725 deaths per 1 million people, while Germany had 133 and Taiwan had 24.

In short, scientific skepticism saves lives. It makes evolutionary sense, even though it requires overcoming shortcuts formed by evolutionary fitness.

Daniel Kahneman analyzes the effect of AS1 in a variety of logical arenas. In the next post, I’ll cover one of the most interesting of them: risk analysis and judgement of probability.

3 comments on “Automatic System 1 and Deliberative System 2

  1. To play Devil’s Advocate: The thesis underlying this would appear to deny the need for emotions and instincts. A more objective stance would say that training the brain in the Scientific Method is a good way to help us cope with our increasingly technological world. But what then of emotions and instincts? Should they be banished, trained out of us, viewed as an evolutionary dead-end and relegated to the scrap heap?

    Let’s take a step back and ask a “simple” thing: What are emotions and instincts? What is it our brain keeps doing in Automatic System 1? Why? More importantly, how? If we assume emotions and instincts evolved for one or more purposes, is it that they are failing us now, or is it that we are failing to learn to use them better?

    Instincts are behavioral reactions “hard-wired” into us by our genetics and epigenetics, developing in the womb and during the first year after birth. This includes things as fundamental as the pain response, where a sensation triggers a physical reaction, mediated by neural transmitters and synapses. Some instincts are triggered/mediated hormonally, such as adrenaline and the “Fight or Flight” response, which are also called “visceral” reactions..

    What about when we encounter a situation for which we don’t have an instinctual reaction? If it bad for us, and assuming we survive, we will develop an aversion to that situation or stimulus, which we perceive as a negative emotion. Such would be the case with a snake that bit us and made us sick: We’d develop an emotional response when we next see it, a response that occurs far faster than had we taken the time to think about it. The same thing applies to positive instances, such as a tasty fruit from a new tree that gave us energy for days. Our mouth would drool just seeing it.

    Emotions of this kind are simply “perception-reaction shortcuts” based on an experience. In time, the actual memory of the original experience itself can fade, while the emotional reaction persists. Such is the case with many food preferences, where a bad childhood experience (say, a poorly cooked meal) created an emotional reaction that blocked a food from the rest of one’s life.

    There are higher-level emotional responses as well, such as empathy, where we take on an experience of another, an experience that didn’t happen to us, but creates an equivalent emotional response.

    I’ll not get into the pair-bonding emotions, often referred to as “love”, which have been both magnified and trivialized by Hollywood and our entire modern society. Let’s just say the animals who mediate this hormonally, via pheromones, have it easy.

    So, could it be that Automatic System 1 may best be defined as the set of emotional responses that do not fit well with, or are inappropriate in, our modern society? If so, then what causes this unwelcome triggering? How much of it is learned versus instinctual?

    What is the proper role for learned emotional response in today’s technological world? How can that role be emphasized and encouraged? Is it possible to reduce the rate of unwelcome triggering? If so, how?

    Remember, emotional and other learned responses are FAST. Far faster than deliberate cognition. The time spent thinking rather than reacting in hazardous situations can make you dead. Sounds like a very positive thing to have, right?

    Unfortunately, the simple fact is that many triggered emotional reactions today have little or nothing to do with staying alive. Yet we act as if they do. More importantly, we FEEL as though they were life and death.

    This is where cognition comes in. Not to shunt the emotional reaction aside to take a better action, but instead to “talk back” to the emotional reaction, to retrain our brain to de-emphasize that particular reaction, so it will be less intense next time, and eventually dissipate.

    This is the realm of applied psychology. It’s not “emotional reaction” OR “cognition”. It’s both, working together, so our emotional reactions serve us better.

    So long as we are still animals, we will be spending lots of time in Automatic System 1. Let’s make that system work better for us, rather than against us.

    1. It’s interesting: I don’t agree with your first sentence, but wholeheartedly agree with your last. In other words, I think we have very much the same thoughts about the difficulties in reconciling the Automatic System 1 with the Deliberative System 2.

      You’re totally right — even though there are cognitive fallacies fueled by AS1, we would be in terrible shape, even today, without it. For example, crossing the street. Ordinarily, we take a quick glance left and right, and if oncoming cars are far enough away, we go ahead and cross. How do we determine what “far enough” is? AS1 does that for us. But, suppose in the mix of distant cars, there’s a police car with the siren going. Now DS2 might come into play, as we calculate how fast the police car is going, and do we indeed have enough time to cross.

      The same applies to the advice given to women when they’re walking in the dark in a relatively unpopulated neighborhood. They’re counseled to pay attention to the way they walk, and not to present themselves as “easy prey.” This is purely meant to make the AS1 of a predator cause him to back off and wait for another victim.

      And perhaps the most important aspect of AS1 is what you mention in your first sentence — emotions, and in particular, love. DS2 certainly plays a part in the decision to marry, for example, but AS1 dominates in the infatuation period, and for most of us, infatuation is the predecessor to long lasting love and marriage.

      My series here is not meant to say we should disregard AS1. Indeed, as Kahneman points out, we can’t dispose of AS1. AS1 is fast and automatic, and the trick is to learn to employ DS2 to figure out whether it’s giving us helpful cues or destructive ones. That’s not easy. It depends on our informational network (which is why I’m going to discuss the book The Misinformation Age, How False Beliefs Spread) as well as our understanding of all the cognitive fallacies we’re subject to (Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe).

      As you pointed out in another comment, social media, with its engineered manipulation of AS1, makes this a difficult task indeed. I was listening to some commentators about why so many people continued to support Trump, even though they were in the heart of the worst COVID outbreaks. They pointed out that Trumpism really isn’t any sort of cohesive ideology. It more like a political stance based purely on attitude. In terms of this discussion, it’s an AS1-based politic, with the added benefit of presidential endorsement. And until COVID came around, there really wasn’t anything in the “objective world” that would give them any indication that “relying on your gut” could have some disastrous results.

  2. Well, I did say I was playing Devil’s Advocate!

    More to the point: How can we make AS1 more useful to us? A case in point may be having silent EVs make noise when going slow, so pedestrians can rely on their AS1 “startle” reflex to leap back when an unseen sound rapidly approaches.

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