You are NOT your first thought: Understanding Your Dual Mind

thought light bulb

We usually think of ourselves as having one mind. You’re you. I’m me. We’re each one person.

But if you’ve ever set your keys down and realized you have NO idea where, weren’t sure if you left the iron/stove on, or skipped ahead and lost time because you went into “autopilot” mode during a commute, you should know your mind isn’t so simple.

Sometimes, our “observing” mind takes a back seat entirely. Othertimes, it’s there, but without any power:

  • You look back and get angry at yourself for watching TV instead of doing work. In fact, you feel guilty in the moment, but just keep going!
  • You rationally KNOW and WANT to exercise more or eat healthier, but when the time comes to make a healthy decision, you just can’t make it happen.
  • You know you need to start that big project, but… you will in an hour. Promise.

Most of us can intuitively conclude that something tricky is going on here.

Your Two Minds

These days, psychologists call these two different aspects of your mind “dual process theory.

The short version is that we aren’t in control like we thought we were. We go through our lives thinking WE are making each and every decision, when in reality we have automatic responses which are responsible for the majority of our decisions in any given day. It’s almost as if your body is a machine part with programmed responses to stimuli… only, you aren’t 100% sure how to (re)program it.

Today I’m going to label our two modes as System 1 and System 2 (Daniel Kanhamen’s terms), but they’ve been described in MANY different ways by different psychologists and researchers.

System 1 System 2
90%+ of our day Less than 10%
Subconscious Conscious
Automatic Deliberative
Requires minimal effort
/big capacity
Requires spending willpower and effort
/small capacity
Habitual Logical
Default thinking Ideal thinking
Low effort/
feels easy
High effort/
feels hard
2+2 4415 X 2918

Almost everything we do in our day is System 1. Want to experience the difference? First, look at 2+2. Notice how the answer just appears in your head, as if in cache. Look at a picture of an angry person screaming, and you immediately know what’s going on. VERY quick thinking.

Now, run a quick experiment, from Scientific American. Complete the following problem (actually try it, and be extremely mindful of what happens).

17 × 24

…Without spending some time on the problem, however, you would not be certain that the answer is not 568. A precise solution did not come to mind, and you felt that you could choose whether or not to engage in the computation…You felt the burden of holding much material in memory, as you needed to keep track of where you started and of where you were going, while holding on to the intermediate result. The process was mental work: deliberate, effortful, and orderly—a prototype of slow thinking.

When we think of “me” we’re typically thinking of system 2. We’re conscious, aware, and, for the most part, rational thinkers in system 2. But our actions on a day to day basis are anything but. In other words, the amount of time in our day where we stop and think like in the problem above, is minuscule.

It’s why advertising tricks work on us, like artificial scarcity (limited time offer!) or anchor pricing.

It’s why our brains can be so easily manipulated – biases and heuristics are built into automatic processing.

Müller-Lyer illusion

It’s why illusions work on us – immediate and false “information” comes in from system 1. We have no direct control over system 1. We may know (system 2) that the lines are equal length, but our system 1 comes in without our blessing (think that one isn’t too hard? Try this one).

Unfortunately, our system 1 & 2 thinking also appears to affect moral decision making in a big way (intuition first, reason second).

So, what does it all mean?

It means we need to be aware of how we work, and understand how system 1 and system 2 impact our lives.

We run into real problems when we identify with this stuff – the stuff that arises out of system 1. When we think it’s “us,” we defend our anger, embrace sadness or stress, and worst of all, our system 2 comes online to DEFEND our system 1 reaction. Like a lawyer defending a client regardless of guilt, when we fail to realize that we are not our system 1 reactions, we feed them even more.

Our system 1 gets angry at our friend or significant other. Our system 2 comes online to create a wonderfully logical argument about how we’re right (even when later, we realize we were wrong).

Our boss says something to us and we feel stressed. Our system 2 jumps in, under the impression we’re stressed to try to find a solution (to get that report done), which validates our system 1 response. Now you are stressed, trying to find a solution in a stressed mindset, and you created a mental feedback loop. This process goes for any response that is automatic (most negative emotions).

Start thinking about your system 1 response (anger, stress, etc) as something simply within your experience, something happening, not something you ARE.

Start thinking about your system 1 response as something simply within your experience, something happening, not something you ARE.

You can’t control what your system 1 spits out, but you can control how you respond to it. When you think of system 1 as something you are, you assume that response is the way it has to be. You “ARE” angry, so you double down on anger (e.g. you feel angry, so you say something mean). When you think of system 1 as something you have to deal with, you get to determine if that reaction was helpful. If not, you have the option to change it. But when you identify with it, you lose this choice – you become a helpless robot plowing through life via only automatic responses.

While I’ll be writing more in the future about strategies to avoid jumping into bed with system 1, the general idea is that we need to find ways to disassociate ourselves with it (see it clearly). It’s not “you” – it is just crap that’s arising in your brain.

So, we need to develop an approach to help us see it this way – to help you stop automatically associating with system 1. One common way to do this in mindfulness circles is to simply reframe your reaction when an emotion arises.

“I am angry” becomes something like: “There is anger.”

While over time the above strategy works just fine, I personally prefer a more nerdy variation. I like to visualize my body as being run on an algorithm like a robot, except of some invisible biological variety (hey, it’s actually sort of true). When I feel a system 1 response, I try to remind myself that this is an automatic response, based on the algorithm running (“The algorithm is spitting out anger”).

So, when I feel stress or have any system 1 response, I know it MUST be automatic – it’s an algorithm, after all. If your code breaks, you don’t think “I am broken” – you just go back and try to identify the problem. “I am stressed” becomes “my algorithm is spitting out stress.” Instead just of “being stressed” and responding in a stressed way, this helps us ask the question: “Is this ___ reaction helpful, or should I make edits to the code?”

This accomplishes the task of helping me not associate with my system 1 reactions. Now, my system 2 comes in like a programmer looking at code, to determine how it needs to react. (Note: we are not aiming to push back against the stress or anger, but create space over time, so that we do not identify with them.)

Overall, we should aim to understand whatever strategy we use so we can implement them in a real world situation – like making you more likely to apologize after you snap at a loved one, or avoiding becoming defensive over a system 1 response (feeling righteous about what your system 1 spit out).

While an intellectual framework is helpful, there is no substitute for direct, experiential knowledge of these systems at play… to truly understand them.

We can do this by learning mindfulness techniques and meditation traditions. We can actually see how this process works – directly. Like taking a microscope to a cell to see something otherwise invisible, we can observe and deconstruct what happens when system 1 operates (normally without us realizing anything but the result).

Through insight meditation, for example, we can begin to see the arising thoughts, feelings, intentions behind the veil.

At first, you may notice something, but recognize that you don’t control it. You just feel hungry. You just feel stressed. You just feel like you want to go do ___. You can watch all of this appear and fall away in meditation.

But eventually, with enough focus, you can see how the flow works – how one stimulus leads to another. You see how one thought leads to another, and how that thought inspires a feeling. And how that feeling inspires an action. All of this typically happens so fast that we don’t realize how complex this chain of events is. Instead, we just reach for the cookie or turn on the TV.

When we see this in meditation (or through applying the above technique off the mat), it becomes obvious that system 1 is automatic, and it becomes tremendously easy to realize that we are NOT our system 1 responses.

Grasping this concept of the “dual mind” has helped me understand my own behavior, habits, and real life barriers.

Have you had a sudden moment where you realized you weren’t in control?

Has learning about other cognitive frameworks aided your practice?


P.S. – Once a week I send out a comic, video, short story, etc, as a fun and light “mindful reminder.” Check out the list, Mindful Mondays, if you’re interested!

P.P.S. – The Reddit discussion thread on this article is here.

photo: Light Bulk


14 thoughts on “You are NOT your first thought: Understanding Your Dual Mind

  1. I think Daniel Kahneman’s book is really well-written and I enjoyed it tremendously.

    One thing that puzzles me about this dualistic system is that rationalization seems pretty automatic, yet does it fall under Sys 1 or Sys 2?

    Would love to hear your views on it. Thanks for this post.

    1. I think rationalization as we experience it normally each day is a system 1 experience. Especially if we’re talking about rationalization as it relates to creating a rational, logical argument for our beliefs. The work of Haidt and Greene have shown that intuition decides belief first (system 1) and then rationalization comes online to defend it at any cost (system 1).

      However, if we’re using rationalization to say, figure out what our list of ingredients needs to be to cook that thing tonight, and we’re shopping at the grocery store, that’s the sort of thing that activates system 2.

      I think a lot of times people think they are being more deliberative because they are using rationalization or logic – and that’s not necessarily true. We all have seen the person who, in a conversation, continues to concoct ridiculous rationalizations, holding on to their belief system at any cost.

  2. I just wanted to tell you that your post helped me a lot to understand myself and my “bad behavior”, the idea of system 1 and 2 really blew my mind. Thanks a lot!

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