Two Systems of Thought

Portland, Oregon, USA

In general, most of us take a lot for granted… and it’s good advice to try not to: to instead be intentional about recognizing the good things we have going for us, and be grateful for them. Strangely enough, though, there are circumstances where taking things for granted is actually a beneficial, even healthy thing – and our struggles as the pandemic unfurls into its second year of impact on us, actually highlight this well.

At this point in human history, with our unparalleled access to information, it’s increasingly common for people to feel overwhelmed. In reality, the world around us has always held too much information for us to deal with. Take our vision as an easy example. Apparently we only actually focus on and directly process between 1 and 20 percent (depending on who you ask) of what we see. In essence we are only really “seeing” what is directly in the center of our focused gaze. Everything surrounding that is a mesh of less focused visual information and extrapolated data our brain puts together. We mentally fill in something like 80% of what we think we’re seeing!

There’s a good reason for this. To actually process our entire field of vision constantly would be inefficient and exhausting. It’s a far more efficient use of our resources to focus on a small portion of what we look at and let our brains fill in the rest with assumptions based on past experiences and context.

This phenomenon expands beyond our vision. In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he makes the distinction between two different types of thinking:

System 1 is pattern recognition: it’s automated, and tied to our limbic system. We use System 1 all the time… we form habits, which lead to shortcuts, and efficiency… and it works phenomenally well… until it doesn’t.

Chairs are a fun example of how entrenched we are in System 1 thinking. The overwhelming majority of people will recognize that a chair is for sitting on. Our life’s experience backs this up. Very few people check the structural integrity of a chair before sitting in it. There are obvious exceptions, but if a chair passes a cursory visual check (that we likely perform in the background of our minds), we sit in it. We take for granted that chairs will hold us, because a lifetime of experience reinforces the assumption.

Just imagine how time-consuming it would be to have to do an inspection of every chair before you sat in it… we take for granted that our chairs will hold us. In exchange, we save hours of time per week. A huge chunk of our life rests in System 1 thinking.

Then there’s System 2: Critical thinking. Focused thinking. Lots of good comes out of System 2 – new ideas, new perspectives, a plethora of NEW! But new is expensive. That’s true not just for possessions but for thoughts. As an example, if you’re having a stroll whilst chatting with a friend, and they bring up something that requires your full attention, you’ll instinctively stop walking. On a core level, your brain says, “Hold up! I’m going to have to turn off auto-pilot for this. We’re gonna divert energy away from System 1… auto-functions like walking are suspended… Full throttle energy to critical thinking, we can walk later!”

System 1 takes a lot for granted, but it allows us to conserve energy and do amazing things when we need to focus and use System 2. Of course, there are loads of examples to illustrate how dangerous it is to relegate some things (like people) into System 1. Misuse of System 1 can lead to prejudice, ignorance, and stereotyping. Used in balanced and healthy ways though, these two systems, and the benefits we reap from having both at our disposal, are a phenomenal example of our body’s resource management.

Here’s where the pandemic comes into play. At this point we’re coming up on two years of disruption. We’ve had waves of denial, anger, and resignation. We’ve felt loss, we’ve felt uncertainty, we’ve changed so many things. There’s a lot we can’t take for granted anymore: seeing friends in person, being able to travel, reading emotion of peoples’ faces.

I genuinely believe some of the stress and anxiety we’re feeling, perhaps even more now than at the beginning of the pandemic, is due to us having to move so many things from System 1 (auto-pilot) to System 2 (critical analysis). To illustrate this, just the addition of masks has added a step we have to think about into previously auto-pilot worthy adventures.

For students in school, teachers in schools, parents in jobs, for everyone – a steady stream of changes and lack of predictability are using up so much more energy than before. We can’t auto-pilot like we used to, so we’re using up more resources – and when we experience resource scarcity, we get anxious.

I think it’s helpful to understand the root of some of our stress and anxiety. It’s helpful to know the dynamics students, teachers, and parents are dealing with. It can also help us identify where to focus more resources to combat the scarcity at the root of our stress.

System 2 thinking, critical thinking, is a good thing, but it is resource intensive. We might benefit from building in some space to compensate for the fact that some processes in our lives that used to be handled on auto-pilot in System 1 are now in System 2 and therefore cost more.

Simply allowing more time in our day for what we used to think of as easy routines can have a positive effect. You used to be able to get out the door and on the way to school in 5 minutes… but there are extra steps and checks now, so allow 10 minutes. You may have been getting by allowing 5 minutes just like before the pandemic, but you’re jamming more in – so give yourself a break.

It sounds small, but these allowances add up throughout our days. In essence we’re asking our brains to do more with the same amount of time and resources. So if we can add time buffers into our resources, we’ll feel less strain.

It’s also worth intentionally helping shift appropriate routines into System 1 where possible. Create patterns, routines, mini-traditions even – and it will likely have a stress-reducing effect. Our mind likes patterns, and it’s amazing how self-soothing we can be just by creating the patterns our minds crave. Recognizing and even celebrating when something has been moved back into the System 1 “quick sort” pile is recognition that more resources are available for System 2 when necessary. Put a sticky note on your door to check for wallet, keys, AND mask. If you’ve already got that routine down and no longer forget your mask, GREAT! You’ve moved something back into System 1, now find some other addition you can auto-pilot.

It’s important to realize this doesn’t mean you have to accept these new additions to System 1 as permanent. Hopefully we won’t have to wear masks regularly at some point, and that will require a shift to get used to life without masks, but for now we need to free up our strained resources. Moving things to System 1 is not a sign of defeat, it’s a sign that we’re adaptable and resilient.

Two years in, we’re feeling the drawn-out strain of the pandemic – hopefully understanding the dynamics of why we feel strained can help us reapportion resources to help ourselves and those around us. Our lives simply cost more thinking power now, but we can make changes (even small ones) to help compensate. I can’t wait for us to move on to the next adventure… but my hope is that we’ll take the things we’ve learned from these past two years with us and use our honed resilience and change management skills for even greater good.