Think Fast, not Slow: The Power of Playing on System 1 Processing


As something a little bit different, I think we should kick off this blog post with a quick maths puzzle: 

No calculators allowed!  

Q1. 1 + 1 =  

Q2. 2 + 2 =  

Q3. 364 x 13 =  

Q4. 5928 ÷ 24 =  

(Answers at the bottom of the blog, if you’re interested) 

Now, those of you who didn’t immediately click off the page at the mere thought of having to do mental arithmetic might now be wondering why on earth I asked you to do it in the first place. The answer to this question lies in the relative difficulties of the equations in the puzzle. Questions 1 and 2 were (I hope) very straightforward and took you absolutely no time to answer. In contrast, unless you’re vying for Rachel Riley’s job on Countdown, questions 3 and 4 were much more difficult and took some considerable thought to answer. Importantly, the first two questions will have caused you to engage an entirely different system of thinking than the second two. 

Let me explain… 

Made famous by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, dual process theory suggests that the human brain uses two distinct systems of thinking – System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, automatic, and intuitive; it helps us to go about our daily activities with as little effort as possible and allows us to make simple, snappy, decisions without the need for conscious thought (e.g., questions 1 and 2). System 2, on the other hand, is slower, more deliberative, and fully in our conscious awareness. We engage System 2 in situations where we really need to think about our actions and work out the most appropriate way to behave (e.g., questions 3 and 4). 

Many of our existing services are built on the presumption that we go about our day-to-day using System 2 to make every choice in life – why wouldn’t we? It’s much more logical and less prone to error than System 1 after all.   

Well, put simply, we’re all too damn lazy. Whenever the brain has the chance to save itself some effort and use System 1, it will do. Thankfully, as behavioural scientists, we can make the most of this tendency. By appreciating that, most of the time, people want simplicity over complexity, we can begin to improve the way we present information and choices, by making them more accessible to System 1 thinking; a really useful concept when thinking about human factors in any change or improvement process   

For example, much of our work with a range of clients has been centred on reducing the amount of unnecessary information presented in their communications with customers and staff. By making messaging more succinct and to the point, we make it as easy as possible for a reader to take in the important information without having to waste energy using System 2 to filter out the stuff they don’t need to know.  

So, the secret to getting people to engage with your communications and make better decisions? Make sure they think fast, not slow. 

To find out how we can help you make your services more System 1 friendly contact us directly at or Tel: 01782 443020. 

Click for Answers

Q1. 2;
Q2. 4;
Q3. 4732;
Q4. 247