What Should We Make of the Way Naomi Osaka Showed Up at the Met Gala?
Ethics Resources -- Ethics Sage

System 1 versus System 2 Thinking

What is the Best Way to Deal With Ethical Dilemmas?

One of the problems in society right now is we often do not consider the consequences of our actions until it’s too late: We’ve decided and the outcomes were not what we had hoped for. We need to do a better job of thinking through how our actions can affect others before deciding on a course of action. This occurs in many organizations, partly because of the stress of resolving a problem sooner rather than later. But what might happen is the matter is not resolved in a way that is in the best interests of the organization. This raises the question of whether an approach to thinking can better prepare us to deal with the uncertainties of life.

Research in behavioral ethics reveals that our minds have two distinct modes of decision making— “System 1” and “System 2” thinking. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist, points out that System 1 thinking is our intuitive system of processing information: fast, automatic, effortless, and emotional decision processes; on the other hand, System 2 thinking is slower, conscious, effortful, explicit, and a more reasoned decision process.

The dominant role of System 1 in ethical decision making is evidenced by the fact that children, even babies, have a basic moral sense that is ingrained into their brains before they are taught morality by their parents and society. For example, infants at the earliest levels of moral development are aware of the importance of rules and the need to yield to authority figures.

Kahneman’s fundamental proposition is that we identify with System 2, “the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices and decides what to think about and what to do.” But the one that is really in charge is System 1 as it “effortlessly originates impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2.”

What follows is an example of using System 1 thinking instead of the more deliberate approach of System 2 and drawing the wrong conclusion as a result. To illustrate, answer the following question: A baseball bat and ball together cost $110. If the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost? Most people say $10. They decide quickly, without doing the math or thinking through the question. However, it is the wrong answer. The ball actually costs $5, and the bat costs $105. System 1 versus System 2 Thinking jpeg

The broader point of this exercise is to explain how System 1 thinking can lead to snap decisions that make it more difficult to resolve an ethical dilemma in a morally appropriate way. It may occur because you lack important information regarding a decision, fail to notice available information, or face time and cost constraints. You don’t have the time or inclination and fail to see the dangers of deciding too quickly. However, both System 1 and System 2 thinking may be negatively impacted because cognitive biases can shape people’s ethical decision making in ways they often do not understand or notice.

There are interconnections between System 1 and System 2 thinking whereby System 2 enhances the value of System 1. For example, when System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment. System 2 is also activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains. System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring and control of your own behavior.

System 2 is mobilized to increased effort when it detects an error about to be made. System 2 has some ability to change the way System 1 works, by programming the normally automatic functions of attention and memory. The division of labor between System 1 and System 2 is highly efficient: it minimizes effort and optimizes performance. The arrangement works well most of the time because System 1 is generally very good at what it does. System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. One of the tasks of System 2 is to overcome the impulses of System 1. In other words, System 2 is in charge of self-control.

In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word. Just think about the last time you went on social media and someone posted negative comments about you. Your instincts might lead you to post something negative about them to get even, a System 1 thought process. But this may not be the best way to go because if you’re dealing with a troublemaker or troll, it could be your response will lead to a “Twitter war.” It’s best to let it go because the consequences can be dire. This is where System 2 comes into play. We need to be adept at both kinds of thinking because different circumstances require a different way to deal with the potential consequences of our actions.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on September 28, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.