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Think less conscious – find more solutionsPieter VD
Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, a well-known psychologist, wrote a book titled Thinking, Fast and Slow about behavioral economics. He discovered that the economy is not based on abstract mathematical and rational decisions, but rather on irrational decisions. In fact, he translates that into two systems in our brain. System 1 is the unconscious gut-feeling. System 2 is what we think is ‘me’, or: our conscious self.
|System 1||System 2|
|11 million bits / second||40 bits / second|
|95 % cognitive||5 % cognitive|
|Not accessible||Chatters away|
But what can we learn from the differences between the two systems? In this blog post, we’ll tell you how you can use them to your advantage.
Solve problems with system 1
In our jobs, we’re thinking about something most of the time. Thinking about software, about a problem or better yet: coming up with its solution. However, standing up, taking a break, playing some table football or table tennis? Not many people would categorize that as ‘working’.
But they’re wrong.
In our perception, the actual conscious thinking is what solves the problem, which usually involves staring at a screen. In reality, it isn’t. More often than not, you’ll solve a problem by not thinking about it. Just after waking up or right before going to sleep, in the shower, or by talking to someone. So, while we think we solve problems by using system 2, it’s wise to be conscious of your unconsciousness (ha!) and use it to your advantage.
Imagine person A has €10. They can give any amount of that €10 to person B. Experiments shows person B won’t accept the offer from person A if it is less than a certain amount, e.g. €3. Which is weird if you start using your system 2 and think about it: person B would rather have nothing than €3. If we were to send person B out of the room to think about it for 10 min, the chances of them accepting the money would drastically increase.
System 1 is the boss…
System 1 is the true ‘boss’ and and gradually takes control over (some) things that used to be in system 2. This goes the other way as well: system 2 cannot govern system 1. Imagine you’re a professional golf player, and you try to think (too) hard about how to swing your club, chances are that you overthink and act wrong. System 2 doesn’t and can’t understand what system 1 does, and there’s no point in trying.
Let’s use a metaphor to illustrate this: an elephant with a rider. The rider represents system 2, the elephant represents system 1. Think about who’s the real boss in this situation: the elephant or the rider?
Here’s an example from our daily lives: riding a bike. Riding a bike is learned by system 2. After a while, the knowledge transfers to system 1. Most people don’t really actively think about how to ride a bike. After a while, they just… do it.
…but it isn’t holy
System 1 is the boss, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own problems. In fact, there are a couple:
- confirmation bias: people look for confirmation, not for information. During WWII for example, the returning airplanes were examined to see where they were shot at. Those spots were then prioritized to reinforce the plane with better armour to increase survival rates. But… that doesn’t make any sense! Those planes were the planes that returned, so they were probably shot at places that could withstand it. Those that didn’t return were probably shot at other places. So instead of examining those places on the planes that returned, they should have looked at the places where the returning places didn’t get shot.
- cognitive dissonance: people can’t have two completely contrary thoughts in their mind, so they try to reduce the dissonance as much as possible by rationalizing thoughts. Sometimes the rationalizations don’t make much sense. Someone may smoke cigarettes despite knowing it can lead to lung cancer. However, they continue to do it because they tell themselves they need the cigarettes to help them deal with anxiety. Cognitive dissonance isn’t always tied to making ‘bad’ decisions, though. Sometimes it can help us establish positive behaviors or changes that our personality or previous habits would otherwise inhibit us from making, e.g. talking yourself into a bike ride or going for a jog by convincing yourself that the activity is good for your health or mood.
- naive realism: if you tell people with a political view different to your own something that goes against that view, you think they’ll understand and might change their opinion. In reality though, this probably won’t happen. That’s because both parties think the other one is uninformed, irrational, or biased.
These problems are not unsolvable, though. We’ll get more into how to avoid them in a future blog post.
- Be conscious of unconscious ‘thinking’. If you’re stuck on something, it helps to let your mind wander off to other places once in a while.
- Be aware of the speed of system 1. Try not to be impulsive when making quick decisions, but give your system 2 some time to think about it.
- System 1 is plagued with a couple bias problems, such as confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and naive realism. Be aware of your bias!
This blog post is based on Linda Rising’s and Karl Scotland’s talks at Lean Agile Scotland in October of this year.