Dual Process Theory - Explanation and examples

How should we use our 2 systems of thought: gut-feeling, and rational thought?


What is dual process theory (of reasoning)?

When we’re making decisions, we use two different systems of thinking. System 1 is our intuition or gut-feeling: fast, automatic, emotional, and subconscious. System 2 is slower and more deliberate: consciously working through different considerations, applying different concepts and models and weighing them all up.

A lot of people have popularised the idea to trust your intuition (see for example one of the most popular TEDx talks), but surely there are situations where we shouldn’t trust it, right? So we should instead be asking not whether to trust it, but when to. One takeaway from the psychological research on dual process theory is that our System 1 (intuition) is more accurate in areas where we’ve gathered a lot of data with reliable and fast feedback, like social dynamics. You know if you insult someone, they’ll probably react by getting sad or defensive. That’s because our intuition has been 'trained' by repeatedly witnessing occurrences and receiving fast feedback on the consequences. Whereas our System 2 tends to be better for decisions where we don’t have a lot of experience; involving numbers, statistics, logic, abstractions, or models; and phenomena our ancestors never dealt with. Pro tip: You can also use both systems, acknowledging that you have an intuition, and feeding it into your System 2 model.

Examples of using dual process theory

This applies to so many facets of life, but let’s take one decision everyone has to make at some point: choosing a career. The decision can be broken down into parts, some are more appropriate for System 1 reasoning, and some are appropriate for using your System 2. With your system 1 you might tackle questions like, “Will I get on with the people I’d be working with in this job?”, or “Will this working environment help me to work productively?”.

And certain questions seem best analysed with System 2: “Where will I build the most valuable skills?”, “What factors correlate most with job satisfaction?”, “Which organisation is growing the fastest?” System 2 reasoning is also better for weighing all the relevant factors and eventually making your career decision because in order to get enough data to have reliable feedback, you would need to have had experience making hundreds or thousands of these decisions.

We also use these 2 processes for making decisions about what is moral or ethical behaviour, what Jonathan Haidt, who conducted much of the original research, has called social intuitionism. He found that moral judgements are made predominantly on the basis of intuition and, when prompted, we use our System 2 to provide a rationalisation, and only rarely do people use conscious reasoning beforehand. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues this is harmful because we can be easily corrupted by immoral social norms (and this is how atrocities like slavery were justified).

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