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Nudging and the dual process of the brain

At Krukow we are deeply devoted to understand how people think and make decisions. We want to know what drives human behavior to ensure a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

When we make decisions, we are either making them on a subconscious level or conscious level, an automatic system, and a reflective system. The Nobel prize winner in economics and pioneer in the field of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahnemann, is known for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision making and has developed a framework for understanding how humans make decisions. Kahnemann calls the two systems of decision making in the brain System 1 and System 2.

This dual process of the brain shapes our perception, and how we make decisions. 95-99% of the brain’s processing is done on a subconscious level, System 1. This automatic part of the brain is constantly working and making decisions. It is used for simple, routine tasks and decisions that do not require much thought or effort. System 1 is driven by impulses, icons, rules of thumb, and gut feelings. We’re daily bombarded with information stimuli that we need to filter through to know what to pay attention to, so System 1 is constantly scanning the environment and automatically taking in the information and processing it without conscious awareness. It operates automatically and quickly and is heavily influenced by our social and physical surroundings. Although System 1 is quick and efficient, it can also be prone to biases and errors, as it relies on solely mental shortcuts and stereotypes to make judgements.

The conscious and reflective system, System 2, allocates attention to more effortful demands for decision-making. It is slower, deliberate, and demands our full attention when making decisions that demand more analytical and logical thinking. As System 2 is more is used for more complex decision making and is more accurate and reliable than System 1, it requires more mental effort and quickly drains our mental energy. Biologically, we are coded to save as much energy as possible. The brain uses up to 20% of the body’s total haul, more than any other human organ, even though the brain only accounts for approximately 3% of our bodyweight. The more we use our reflective thinking, the more mental energy we use. That is why we feel exhausted on i.e., our first day at a new job. Everything is new and our brain is overloaded with new information to reflect upon. Therefore, we try to avoid using slow, reflective thinking, but rely mostly on shortcut and fast, unconscious thinking.

The two systems often work together, with System 1 serving as sort of a gatekeeper that filters through and evaluates all the information to free up space for System 2 to focus on the decisions that need more mental energy. What begins in System 2, i.e., the task and information introduced on the first day of a new job, can after repetition become a part of the System 1 decision making. However, the two systems can come into conflict, when System 1 makes a snap but false judgement that is not picked up on with the more careful analysis of System 2.

Here is one example of how System 1 and System 2 work.

Look at the image below

When looking at the image we quickly recognize the woman is angry, and she is about to say (or yell) some unkind words. A premonition of what the woman is going to do next came to our mind effortlessly. The conclusion came to us fast and automatically. The reaction to the image is an instance of fast thinking System 1.

Now have a look at this image

We quickly recognize that it is a multiplication problem, that it’s a whiteboard with black numbers and we may even have some vague knowledge of the range of the result. However, a precise solution did not come to mind, and we could even choose to engage and attempt to solve it. Most of us would need a pen and a paper and a bit of time to solve the problem. That reaction to the mathematic problem is an instance of slow thinking.

The difference between the two images illustrates how we use two different parts in our brain. In the first image, we immediately carried out a precise conclusion of what we saw and were even able to predict the woman’s behavior. In the second image we had to hold much material in our memory by carrying out the computation, and the process was deliberate and effortful. Our blood pressure rose, muscles tensed up, and our pupils dilated. Slow, reflective thinking uses much more mental energy than fast, automatic thinking.

References: The Buying Brain

Swaminathan, N. (2008). Why does the Brian need so much Power? New study shows why the brain drains so much of the body’s energy. Scientific American.,to%20communicate%20with%20one%20another.

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