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How Mindsets Work

Our minds are amazing. It appears to us that we make decisions thoughtfully and deliberately, but research has shown that most of the time we make decisions instinctively, based on the mindset we have developed over time. It’s almost as if we have two minds—one that builds our mindset and corrects it from time to time, and another that reacts quickly to situations as they develop, drawing on the currently available mindset to arbitrate trade-offs.

The idea that we have two rather different decision-making processes is not a new one; the literature is filled with many varied descriptions of our two minds. One mind might be intuitive, the other analytical; one mind could be emotional, the other rational; one reflexive, the other reflective. One mind might look for patterns, the other follows rules; one mind acts on tacit knowledge, the other prefers explicit information; one mind makes snap decisions, the other takes time to think things through.

Psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West proposed that we take all of these different theories about people being of two minds and combine them into a single theory: the Dual Processing Theory.3 The theory works something like this: Humans have two different methods for processing information, and each method operates more or less independently of the other one, exchanging information at appropriate times. Sometimes the two processes arrive at different conclusions, and that’s when we become aware of the fact that we have two minds, because they are in conflict with each other.

In order to avoid a bias toward any particular way of describing our two “minds,” Stanovich and West proposed that we simply call them System 1 and System 2.

System 1 and System 2

An excellent description of System 1 and System 2 can be found in Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.4 Kahneman describes System 1 as our fast-thinking self, the one that makes decisions based on intuition, is influenced by emotions, uses tacit knowledge, and operates out of habit. If you have ever walked into your home after a long day at work and wondered how you got there, you can be sure that System 1 brought you home all by itself while you were distracted with other things. For getting the everyday things in life done, we can’t beat System 1; we might think of it as our autopilot mode.

System 2 is the part of us that analyzes situations, considers alternatives, plans for the future, and does the math. Whenever we find ourselves pausing to consider something carefully, it’s like switching from autopilot to manual mode; our analytical mind takes over from our intuition and works out rational choices. Although System 2 is not actively directing us most of the time, it regularly checks up on System 1 to see if it needs to intervene. When we develop a decision tree to make sure we consider all of the alternatives before making a decision, System 2 is in charge. When we are quiet and polite even though we are angry, System 2 is keeping System 1 in check.

Generally speaking, we operate in autopilot mode. If unusual circumstances arise, we switch out of autopilot and over to manual mode. And it is in this manual mode that we develop or modify our mindsets. We will need to spend a good amount of time in manual mode, with System 2 fully engaged, in order to change an established mindset. But there’s a problem: System 2 is slow. It takes much longer than System 1 to make decisions and get things done. In addition, System 2 is lazy; its preferred approach is to turn as much work as possible over to System 1. So modifying a mindset takes deliberate effort and considerable time—time spent reading a book, for example.

We would like to introduce you to Otto and Anna:

  • Otto represents our System 1 mind, so he is on autopilot much of the time. He is intuitive and moves easily, adjusting rapidly to whatever happens. He has a lot of experience in his specialty area and is comfortable trusting his expertise and intuition to guide his actions.
  • Anna represents our System 2 mind; she analyzes situations before she acts. She knows that the best decisions are those based on evidence. She is good at gathering data, running experiments, and weighing the impact of various choices before making a decision.

Otto and Anna are very opinionated. They will be reading this book along with you, and they will ask questions and challenge our ideas on a regular basis. We put our dialog with Otto and Anna in a sidebar so you can follow along with your favorite co-reader.

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