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Continued from Previous……

The book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman is broad in its scope and enormous in its applications and implications. What I shall do is to introduce few core concepts here in this three-part series. Those who are intrigued (I hope there would be many) are requested to read the book.

The fundamental concept is that our thinking is based on two-parts, two-functions processes. These were originally named as System 1 and System 2 by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West. Daniel is continuing with the same.

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

The capabilities of System 1 include innate skills that we share with other animals. We are borne prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice. System 1 has learned associations between ideas; it has also learned skills such as reading and understanding nuances of social situations. Some skills, such as finding strong chess moves, are acquired only by specialized experts. Others are widely shared. Detecting the similarity of a personality sketch to an occupational stereotype requires broad knowledge of the language and the culture, which most of us possess. The knowledge is stored in memory and accessed without intention and without effort. [Unquote]

The actions of System 1 are largely involuntary. For example, we cannot stop ourselves from understanding simple sentences, or doing simple calculation like 2+2. Our System 1 shall do it even before we consciously think about it. The first reactions and impulses are always involuntary and under System 1. We may stop ourselves after the first reaction and go into a deliberate, slow, organized working under System 2.


The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is withdrawn away. Here are some examples.

  • Brace for the starter gun in a race
  • Focus attention on the clowns in the circus
  • Maintain a faster walking speed than in natural for you
  • Monitor the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation
  • Tell someone your phone number
  • Park in a narrow space
  • Fill out a tax form

In all these situations, you must pay attention, and you will perform less well, or not at all, if you are not ready or if your attention is directed inappropriately… The often-used phrase “pay attention” is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail. It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once. You could not compute the product of 17 x 24 while making a right turn into dense traffic, and you certainly should not try. You can do several things at once, but only if they are easy and undemanding. You are probably safe carrying on a conversation with a passenger while driving on an empty highway…[Unquote]

I would like to highlight here that the greatest number of road accidents happen because drivers believe driving has gotten into their reflexes and they can drive and do many other things together. In present times, mobile phone conversations are the biggest killer. Imagine a person driving and on phone; what happens when suddenly the conversation become stressful or demanding, it will take the much-needed attention away from driving and may become cause of an imminent accident.

The above description helps to understand and differentiate between the ‘involuntary’ System 1 and ‘voluntary’ System 2. Our normal functioning depends on both. Both systems have their advantages and issues, but we need both every time, every day.

Our System 1 helps us to negotiate with the usual activities, where we respond effortlessly, without thinking. It helps us to make first impressions about the strangers we meet. These impressions are largely accurate and advise us on how to deal with them. We perform hundreds of functions everyday which are mediated through System 1. It accords us agility, reduces reaction time, and avoids awkwardness.

The significance of System 2 comes into play when we need to look closer, analyze, and take logical decisions. In our dealings with people, we may discover some disturbing factors later. This would be time to reflect on the whole thing, recall earlier encounters and see beyond what appears.

In the next (last) part, we shall see some more aspects of Systems 1 & 2 and relate these to our real life.

To be Continued.

Disclaimer. Most pictures in these blogs are taken from Google Images which does not show anyone’s copyright claim. However, if any such claim is presented, we shall remove the image with suitable regrets.

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