Tuesday, June 03, 2008

System 1 and System 2

I just read an interesting blog post on decision making.  It referenced two process: one automatic (System 1) and one "controlled" (System 2).  These correspond roughly to intuition or unconscious process and conscious attention or reasoning.  Most people believe that most decisions are made automatically and then evaluated in conscious attention.

Yes, there is some hedging in that sentence.  Conscious attention would not be much use in deciding to jump out of the path of oncoming traffic.  So there are times we act - or react- and make judgments about our wisdom after the fact.  On the other end of the scale, we have all had to solve puzzles to which we have no instinctive reaction.  You look at the exam question and absolutely nothing happens in the automatic side of your brain.  So you begin to pick at the question consciously, the way you might pick at a tangled chain.

It is interesting to me that people feel more control when they are more conscious.  After all, none of us invented the rules by which we judge things consciously: from science through logic through religious principles, we are guided consciously by things beyond our control.  Unconscious process is probably more unique and therefore a better representation of the self. So why does conscious attention feel like "us" and unconscious process feel like "instinct" or "magic": a gift or a curse? It is not that unconscious process robs us of control. We just do not recognize the "us" that running the unconscious process.

Control may not prove a very useful concept in human thinking.  Out of control, we have access to our fullest selves: the selves that think 'automatically' and the selves that follow rules other people devised.  In control, we have effort, struggle, and learning by mistakes.  There is certainly value in all of these things. I wonder if that value requires a concept of control or if there is a more useful frame for how we make decisions.

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