Written by: Ayodhya Ouditt Updated: Jan, 2020 3 min read
A friend of mine recently got some good news regarding a job and wanted to celebrate, so we went down to the strip of food stalls near Grand Bazaar for some street food and then later headed to a bar for a drink.
While I’m certainly not trying to come across as one of those people who complains about everything, it’s also a requirement that a designer be ready to exercise critical thinking at all times. In particular, if one’s concern is social good, and human, animal and environmental wellbeing, paying attention to one’s surroundings is vital.
So with that said it’s always disheartening to me when we go out to lime and I see parents feeding their children cheese-steaks and ‘hoagies’ drowned in sauces, and watering them with coke, pepsi, or some other soft drink. These all come in styrofoam boxes and plastic bottles, which (if one is lucky) are thrown into a bin, but far too often end up in a canal.
This is a bleak situation, for the animals consumed and the human consumers, as well as for the urban and natural environment. But we see this — and even participate in it — everyday, to the point of numbness.
As I heard the lady behind me call to the gyro man for “more mayonnaise” on her burger, I wondered… “What is the reason for this? Why did she feel like she needed more?”
While there are of course many different factors leading to our poor health decisions, if I had to pick just one thing, I thought, it would have to be an overdose of System 1 Thinking, and a deficiency of System 2 Thinking.
Systems 1 and 2 refer to different paradigms of thinking, both of which operate in very different ways. I first saw the terms used in behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, but they were actually coined by psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West. In Kahneman’s tome, he writes about them like characters in a drama, outlining in particular the ways in which System 1, which comprises our brain’s most ancient survival mechanisms, often betrays us in modern life. Within the title, ‘thinking fast’ refers to System 1, and ‘thinking slow(ly)’ refers to System 2.
“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
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.”
So System 1 handles things like detecting hostility in the voice of another, driving a car on an empty road, and of course thirsting after those calorie dense burgers, double-meat gyros, and sugary soft drinks.
System 2 on the other hand allows us to consider that the above mentioned person might have just been stressed, allows us to drive on a crowded road, and enables us to think about making a healthier dinner choice.
The problem is that System 1 works faster, and System 2 requires more mental resources. So if we’re pressed for time, stressed, or just not making a conscious effort to think and act critically, we’re going to be much more susceptible to our instincts when making decisions.
And that’s why that lady asked for more mayonnaise on her burger. It’s simply faster and easier for her brain to think about mayo tasting good. But perhaps if this information were more widely available, and we all understood that this is how we make decisions, we would all be able to double-check our first instincts.
It’s very important for us to think this way, using metacognition — thinking about one’s own thoughts — to reflect on our choices. If we know that we’re susceptible to System 1 thinking all day long, we can engineer better ways around it, by reducing the cognitive load in our daily lives.
When public health campaigns fail, usually it’s because they human beings are expected to absorb information rationally, then execute the desired behaviour perfectly. But we all know that this simply isn’t our nature. You can’t outrun System 1. You can only work around it. That’s why policymakers, public health experts, and designers for behaviour change need to think slow, and not fast, when it comes to improving population health.