Our Divided Minds – Part 1

Two books I’ve read recently – The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – offer some surprising new insights into how our minds function.  Both authors are social psychologists renowned in their field (Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winner), and each describes the mind as a divided entity, with two components  working in complementary yet vastly different ways.  Kahneman’s broad focus is on the mind’s decision-making process across all aspects of our life; Haidt’s is a more narrow focus on how the mind formulates our political and religious convictions.  Kahneman’s ideas enrich our understanding of the concept of mindfulness; Haidt’s ideas have the potential to enhance our skillfulness in engaging with others more mindfully.

Let’s start with Kahneman.

He identifies the two aspects of the mind as simply “System 1” and “System 2”.   Here is how he describes their individual roles and their joint functioning:

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no sense of voluntary control.  System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.  When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do.  Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero, effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2.  {pp. 20-21, hardcover edition}

Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake.  System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode.  System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings.  If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs.  When all goes smoothly, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification.  When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment.  System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.  System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior – the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night.   {p. 24, hardcover edition}

We might think of System 1 as the “automatic pilot mode” that efficiently guides us through our familiar daily routines.  Getting dressed, driving to town, shopping for groceries, conversing with family members over dinner – these and the countless other habitual behaviors that make up such a large part of our days – all are managed by this System 1 that has learned through repeated trials exactly what is required in each situation.

If we consider System 1 to be the mind’s automatic pilot, then we can view System 2 as the actual pilot, monitoring the cockpit instruments and taking control when situations turn from familiar to novel.  Planning a large-scale home improvement project, driving through the unfamiliar streets of a foreign city, pondering a mid-life career change – any unforeseen or non-habitual circumstance emerging in the course of the day calls upon the services of System 2 to devise a program of action that meets the requirements of the novel situation.

In this scheme of things, System 1 is our default mode of being – the “fast thinking” that Kahneman refers to in his title.  System 2 – or “slow thinking” – is invoked only when needed, and revoked as soon as the need is met.  System 1 does the easy work, System 2 does the hard work – an efficiently designed bit of neurological teamwork.

Very neat, we might say.  But, unfortunately, too neat – and not nearly as effective as we might think.

The problem, as Kahneman reminds us on more than one occasion, is that System 2 is lazy.  It doesn’t want to exert any more effort than it has to, and is always eager to hand the controls back over to System 1.  Too eager, in fact.  All too often, in keeping with its lazy disposition, it shies away from the difficult work of slow thinking, and looks instead for an easier, faster solution.

Kahneman refers to these shortcuts in slow thinking as “heuristics”, and identifies quite a few varieties of them.  What they all have in common is the tendency to substitute a simpler question for the more complex one actually being posed.  As an example, he cites the challenge of predicting a politician’s chances of success in a planned bid for higher office.  A reliable answer requires a large investment of System 2 slow thinking – studying the demographics, understanding the issues, assessing possible opponents, just to name a few.  But, Kahneman claims, we are more likely to shy away from the difficult effort of analyzing these unfamiliar factors, and instead base our prediction on the much easier task of looking at information that we already know, or that is readily available – for example, how successful was the candidate in her last election bid, or how charming was he in the interview we just saw on the morning news?  We arrive at an answer much faster and with much less effort, thanks to System 2 passing the task back to System 1 – but our prediction has much less reliability because we didn’t take the time and effort to answer the difficult but more relevant questions.

Taking into account this natural tendency of our mind to go for the easy solution, to engage in fast thinking even when slow thinking is called for, can help us move toward more effective decision-making – one of Kahneman’s stated goals in writing this book.  His hope is that, having learned about heuristics and the trouble they can cause from the many studies he reports on in his book, we will become more alert to those situations where we truly need to be in System 2 slow thinking mode, and more disciplined about resisting the temptation to slip back into System 1 fast thinking mode.

That’s a worthy hope.  But, is just knowing about the trap of heuristics enough to keep us from falling victim to them?  Remember that System 2 by its very nature is lazy, and will take any opportunity to hand things back to System 1.  To alter such a strongly programmed pattern of neurological functioning will take more, I fear, than a mere intellectual understanding of heuristics.

And here, where I believe Kahneman’s good intention falls short, is precisely where our understanding of mindfulness can push us forward and help us achieve his objective.

For mindfulness – the habit of being continuously self-aware and self-observing – is strikingly similar to what Kahneman describes as System 2 thinking.  Recall this assertion he makes in the excerpt quoted above …. System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior – the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night. 

And, as anyone who strives to cultivate the habit of mindfulness well knows, it is by no means our default mode of being.  That distinction, unfortunately, belongs to the habitual, automatic patterns of behavior we have acquired over the course of our lifetime – thoughtless speech and actions that resemble nothing so much as what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking.

Applying Kahneman’s typology to the concept of mindfulness, then, we see that our normal un-mindful state corresponds to his default fast-thinking System 1 mode, and that the more deliberate state of mindful awareness we achieve only with some effort corresponds to his slow-thinking System 2 mode that arises only when summoned by circumstance.

Thus, the System 1/System 2 dichotomy enriches our understanding of mindfulness by giving us a scientific framework from which to realize that the mindful state is not our natural way of being, to appreciate that it will always take a certain effort on our part to enter into and then sustain a state of mindfulness, and to recognize that our minds will naturally slip out of that mindful state at the first little breeze of distraction.

And, we can return the favor to Kahneman by enriching his too facile prescription for how we can become more skillful users of our System 2 capacities – the intellectual grasp of heuristics and their pitfalls – with the physical rigor of meditation practice, the most potent tool we have for developing mindfulness.

Think for a moment about the disciplines we bring to our practice of sitting meditation – physical stillness, concentration, and inquiry.  The thoughts and feelings that continually parade through our mind while we sit are manifestations of System 1.  They are fast, random, and often dazzle us with their appeal; they pull us away from our intention in meditating.  By contrast, the calm focus we aspire to while sitting has all the attributes of System 2.  It is slow, deliberate, and aware of but not easily seduced by distractions; it pulls us further into our intention.

We practice meditation on a regular basis for no other reason than to become more mindful and to bring that mindfulness into all our daily speech and actions.

It seems quite plausible that when we practice meditation we are coincidentally, if unintentionally, strengthening the System 2 part of our minds.  And furthermore, it seems equally plausible that, as a result of a continuous daily meditation practice, our strengthened System 2 grows less lazy, and more capable of resisting the allure of heuristics.

One of the great paradoxes with meditation is that, when we practice with the hope of getting something out of it, we actually undercut the practice by our grasping after some imagined benefit; but when we practice without hope of gain, we strengthen the practice by our very lack of grasping after something, and do in fact benefit personally from our practice.

Accordingly, I am by no means advocating that we sit in meditation with the intention of building up our System 2 strength.  That would be grasping – precisely what we strive to avoid in meditation.  Rather, I am simply proposing that a stronger System 2, one that actually does the hard work of slow thinking when called upon, may be an unintended gain that results from the discipline of meditation.

Kahneman would, I think, describe a person with such a strong, competent, and effective System 2 as a good decision-maker.

Another way to describe such a person would be, quite simply, as “mindful”.


The next post will take up the views of our second author, Jonathan Haidt, on our divided minds.

In the meantime, here is the review of Thinking, Fast and Slow that got me interested in Daniel Kahneman’s work …..




About Tom Cummings

I've been a political liberal for the past fifty years, and a committed secular Buddhist for the last ten. As I move forward with my personal practice of Buddhism, and as I take note of the increasingly tribalistic "us-against-them" tenor of political discourse in countries across the globe (most notably here in my own United States), I appreciate more and more how much these two worthy traditions - liberalism and Buddhism - share in common. My intention in writing this blog is to provide a forum for the exploration of these overlapping values, and how their confluence might relate to current issues affecting American citizens and the global community. Two convictions underlie the posts that will appear here: (1) Buddhism's invitation for us to embrace generosity, compassion, and wisdom offers a clear path for resolving our national and global problems effectively and humanely; and (2) liberalism, by virtue of the high value it places on the social good, is the natural home for a politically engaged and pragmatically meaningful Buddhism.
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11 Responses to Our Divided Minds – Part 1

  1. Thanks Tom!

    This is just tangential! I wonder if it’s relevant…

    The concept of System 1 & System 2 seems somehow to neatly get round the controversy about Left (cut & dried, mechanical) & Right (looking for patterns & rhythms) brain functions by getting rid of a connection with the brain as such. Although the L/R dichotomy is challenged by most recent brain operatives, there is nevertheless an observable difference in behaviour which has for 60 years been associated with two distinct parts of the brain. But as has been shown (you’ll know) by the latest brain-measuring gismos, all manner of bits of the brain light up when the subject is engaged, say, in doing a sum (L) or painting a picture (R). So it’s quite correct (= I like the idea!) to refer to a ‘system’ – one which runs through the whole brain instead of being located somewhere specific.

    In the middle of my own obsessive studying, I just happen to be focussing on the concept of ‘Toleration of Ambiguity’, a behavioural characteristic of those of a non-authoritarian (quick fix) disposition (Frenkel-Brunswik et al – back in the 1960’s, I think). It would seem to me to be a necessary trait of somebody hoping to live comfortably inside System 2 without making it an aim for meditation – to avoid ‘…grasping after some imagined benefit…’ as you say.


    • Tom Cummings says:

      While Kahneman does not take up the “left brain / right brain” issue in his book, the connotation you’re putting on his use of the word “system” as “running through the whole brain” seems to me both valid and valuable, Colin.

      I hope that you’ll share some of your insights about “toleration of ambiguity” in a future post. It sounds very similar to a principle that comes up again and again in my ongoing study of Buddhism – the importance of being willing to embrace paradox.

      Love your definition of “correct” as “I like the idea!” I don’t think I’ll ever be able to use that term again without remembering the equation!


  2. erikleo says:

    Yes, toleration of unpleasant mind-states too. This is very much the practice of zen mediation. Also a large part of CBT. Have you read The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris?


  3. Thanks for your comment, Tom. My computer’s playing up now I’ve had it refitted… I’ve had to tolerate that… ‘Toleration of Ambiguity’ will come up shortly now the daffodils are on the way out!


  4. Michael says:

    I really enjoyed your discussion of Kahneman’s writing and thinking, and at a high level I would agree that meditation strengthens the moment-to-moment presence of mindfulness, but at the same time I see some challenges with bridging across the explanatory approach of Kahneman’s two systems and mindfulness, if only to the extent that I do not see mindfulness necessarily as an analytical, slow-thinking faculty, but an expansive, full-bodied awareness-acceptance of “what is”. It leads me to wonder if Kahneman thought or wrote at all about the ambiguous concept of “presence”? Questions that comes to mind, for instance, are where the intelligence of the heart might fit into these two systems, where the concept of a “self” resides or is addressed as it seems to be implicit in both systems, and whether or not the System 2 processing might become a problematic over-ride of the simple clarity mindfulness offers? These are musings and questions, perhaps far afield from Kahneman’s intended scope…



    • Tom Cummings says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Michael. I agree with your description of mindfulness as “an expansive, full-bodied awareness-acceptance of ‘what is’”, and I think perhaps that there is room enough in that description to include Kahneman’s notion of “slow thinking” as an attribute of the mindful state. What I certainly think is true is that Kahneman’s “fast thinking” mode is completely incompatible with mindfulness. What drew me to consider mindfulness from the perspective of his “system 1 / system 2” framework was the analogy I saw between the inherent laziness of system 2 and the constant susceptibility to distraction of mindfulness. Both are highly desirable states of mind that require effort to sustain.

      But again, I agree with you that they are not identical, and that mindfulness ought not to be defined merely as a manifestation of “system 2” slow thinking. As you say, it is a much more expansive state than that.

      I did not see your other musings and questions addressed in this particular book, but no doubt Kahneman would have some interesting thoughts about the points you raise. Hopefully there will be more books from him in the future, and perhaps we’ll get to hear from him on some of them.


  5. Human Relationships says:

    Reblogged this on Human Relationships.


  6. Pingback: In praise of “slow thinking” | Engaged Mindfulness

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