What is System 1 thinking?
  • Garrett Meccariello

What is System 1 thinking?

Updated: May 16, 2019

Written by Garrett Meccariello.

System 1. It’s a buzzword that market researchers have adopted quite feverishly in recent months. Borrowed from the field of behavioral economics (behavioral science to some), System 1 refers to the fast, automatic way of thinking that our brains use to make thousands of small, simple, and nonconscious decisions every day.

Before we take a step further, it is important to understand where the term System 1 came from, in order to understand where it is going. Coined by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 best-selling book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, the term reflects many of the key learnings that Kahneman had mined throughout his career of understanding how we think and make decisions. Kahneman, a psychologist by trade, understood very early on in his career that human thinking was unique and programmed with shortcuts designed to save us time when thinking.

Imagine for a moment that we spent the same amount of time deciding what cheese would be best on a ham sandwich as we did deciding which life insurance policy is the best for our family. You can imagine that if we spent the same amount of time on every trivial decision throughout the day as we did on larger decisions, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish much.

To help solve this problem, we think using two metaphorical brains according to Kahneman: the System 1 and System 2.

We rely on our System 1 brain for “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, and unconscious” thinking. A few examples of thinking with the System 1 brain as explained by Kahneman are solving the math equation 2+2, completing the phrase "war and ...", and connecting the description 'quiet and structured person with an eye for details' to a specific job, all in a fast and efficient manner.

Contrary, the System 2 brain is used for making “slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious” decisions. Examples of System 2 thinking are solving 17x24, determining the price/quality ratio of two washing machines, and actively counting the number of times that the letter A appears in this paragraph.

When consumers decide whether to buy Coke or Pepsi, they most likely rely on their System 1 brain to help make the choice. Without using their System 1 brain, they would be passed by dozens of others shoppers in the aisle while they deliberate over which brand has the best price/quantity trade off. System 1 allows us to make decisions rapidly, in the moment, based upon past emotional and experiential associations that may not always be top of mind when thinking using the System 2.

Since the human brain makes and processes consumer decisions automatically and unconsciously in order to save mental bandwidth, it is important to evaluate how such decisions are arrived at in a System 1 manner. Problematically, traditional quantitative survey techniques only tap into the System 2.

The expansion of behavioral economics into the market research field has yielded several analytical tools to probe such decision-making processes at the System 1 level. These include but are not limited to implicit association testing, metaphor elicitation, and other projective research techniques that tap into the nonconscious to uncover true behavioral drivers.

If you are interested in learning more about how to use System 1 research techniques to uncover what drives behavior on a nonconscious level, please feel free to reach out to our team of consumer culture theorists, behavioral scientists, and experienced research analysts.

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