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Weekly Blog #22 - Complete the phrase "bread and ..."

Updated: May 25, 2020

If you came up with the phrase "bread and butter" - which would be quite normal - you just experienced one of two systems that are operating inside your brain at work. More specifically: the fast and automatic "System 1".

I assume you've all heard a story or two about how our brain works and that some people are thinking more with their left side of the brain and others with the right (which is BTW pseudo-science). In fact, both sides are active all the time even though there are some traits that scientists associate with brain functions in a specific area. I have been writing about this a couple of weeks ago and I want to share a few interesting bits that I've gathered since then.


How we are wired...

Working with many different characters throughout my professional career I always believed that a good bit of how people behave, how smart and intelligent they are, the learning abilities they have, their eloquence and other traits came as results of nurture, education and their social upbringing. But that's only half the story. Looking at the nature-vs.-nurture dichotomy and learning more about brain functionality I realized that our traits are a result of both, our development within and the influence of a certain spectrum of society as well as the biological features of our brain.

Even more, I realized that the way each individual's brain is structured, the way information is being received by receptor cells (sensation), converted into impulses and then interpreted and organized (perception) and stored within the specific areas of the brain is the foundation of everything that characterizes us as an individual. Each individual's capability to translate information into scripts - e.g. how to throw a ball - the capacity of our working memory, the "storage space" that we have available in our long-term memory and many other features that account for our learning capabilities and memory should be taken into account when thinking about (or even judging) why yourself or someone else is behaving in a specific way.

The two systems and their feats...

Writing about two "agents" or systems that run your brain might sound like I fell for the theory that the brain is split in two parts and each part does a specific thing that the other part can't do. Anatomically that might be correct, left hemisphere, right hemisphere, corpus callosum in the middle and all that, but I'm not referring to the anatomical structure of the brain. The two agents are not located in a specific part of the brain, nor are they made up of specific pieces of brain matter, lobes, gyri, sulci or neuronal clusters.

As you might have found out by now the two agents are fictional characters that are responsible for specific processes as described by Nobelist Daniel Kahneman in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow". More precisely, Kahneman is writing about two systems, "System 1" and "System 2". The next passage is taken from his book and the summary provided by Wikipedia - please excuse the shortcut but it's the best one I found.

The first agent or System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. Therefor it can be described as fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, unconscious.

Examples (in rough order of complexity) of things system 1 can do:

  • Detect that one object is more distant than another.

  • Orient to the source of a sudden sound.

  • Complete the phrase “bread and . . .”

  • Make a “disgust face” when shown a horrible picture.

  • Detect hostility in a voice.

  • Answer to 2 + 2 = ?

  • Read words on large billboards.

  • Drive a car on an empty road.

  • Find a strong move in chess (if you are a chess master).

  • Understand simple sentences.

  • Recognize that a “meek and tidy soul with a passion for detail” resembles an occupational stereotype.

"All these mental events [...] occur automatically and require little or no effort. The capabilities of System 1 include innate skills that we share with other animals. We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice." - Kahneman (2011)

The second agent or System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. Frankly, it can be described as slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.

Examples of things system 2 can do:

  • Brace for the starter gun in a race.

  • Focus attention on the clowns in the circus.

  • Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room.

  • Look for a woman with white hair.

  • Search memory to identify a surprising sound.

  • Maintain a faster walking speed than is natural for you.

  • Monitor the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation.

  • Count the occurrences of the letter a in a page of text.

  • Tell someone your phone number.

  • Park in a narrow space (for most people except garage attendants).

  • Compare two washing machines for overall value.

  • Fill out a tax form.

  • Check the validity of a complex logical argument.

"In all these situations you must pay attention, and you will perform less well, or not at all, if you are not ready or if your attention is directed inappropriately. System 2 has some ability to change the way System 1 works, by programming the normally automatic functions of attention and memory." - Kahneman (2011)


So, what to do with knowing about the two systems or agents? We can't really look inside our own or someone else's brain during a typical conversation (at least literally) but knowing about the different characteristics of the two agents that are responsible for our behavior and how we act most of the time can help to identify and characterize certain traits as well as behavioral patterns and tendencies. Knowing the difference between the two systems and how they work helps to understand certain situations better and it's also good for general communication purposes.

By analyzing and reflecting on different situations or decisions that you've made you can ask yourself: Was this System 1 at work? Why did System 2 not engage? Do I generally have a more active System 1? Is my System 2 usually that lazy? Do I need to slow down and let System 2 take over more often? How can I make sure that I approach this more rational next time? For I'd consider myself an impetuous and even impulsive person at least that's what I'm trying to do now that I know...


If you are interested in more insights regarding our brain, feel free to purchase Daniel Kahneman's book through my Amazon Affiliate Link:

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