The Least Amount of Information

As its default mode of operation, the human brain uses the least amount of information necessary to make sense of the world before making decisions. This product of evolution was an efficient and effective strategy when we lived in a simple, familiar world. We no longer live in that world. We can still use this strategy to make sense of those aspects of our world that remain relatively simple and familiar (i.e., walking from point A to point B without tripping or falling into a hole), but we must use more advanced strategies when navigating the complex and/or unfamiliar. The default mode of thinking, which is intuitive, feeling-based, and fast, utilizing efficient heuristics (rules of thumb), is called System 1 thinking. The more advanced and more recently evolved mode of thinking, which is reflective, rational, and slow, is called System 2 thinking. Both are valid and useful. The trick is knowing when to shift from System 1 to System 2.

In my opinion, many of the problems that we suffer from today occur because we fail to shift from System 1 to System 2 when needed. For instance, electing the president of the most powerful nation on Earth requires System 2 thinking. That’s obvious, I suppose, but even such a mundane task as grocery shopping requires System 2 thinking to avoid choices that are fueled merely by marketing.

Defaults are automatic and largely unconscious. A single mode-of-thinking default doesn’t work when life sometimes requires System 1 and at other times requires System 2. Instead, rather than a default mode of thinking, we would benefit from a default of shifting into one or the other mode depending on the situation. This default doesn’t exist, but it could be developed, to an extent, through a great deal of practice over a great deal of time. Only by repeating the conscious act of shifting from System 1 to System 2, when necessary, over and over again, will we eventually reach the point where the shift will become automatic.

For now, we can learn to bring our mode of thinking when making decisions into conscious awareness and create the moments that are necessary to effect the System 1 to System 2 shift when it’s needed. Otherwise, we will remain the victims of hunter-gatherer thinking in a modern world that demands complex and sometimes unfamiliar choices, many of which come with significant, potentially harmful consequences. How do we make this happen? This is a question that deserves careful (i.e., System 2) study. One thing I can say for sure, however, is that we can learn to pause. The simple act of stopping and taking a moment to ask, “Is this one of those situations that, because it is complex or unfamiliar, requires reflection?”, is a good start.

Take care,


3 Comments on “The Least Amount of Information”

By Brian M. January 12th, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Evolution’s a bear, huh? ;-)

Pausing to think before acting has long been a standard piece of advice from parents to children (“Think before you act!” “You should have thought of that before you …” “Count to 10” and so on). And yet… here we are.

Maybe in a hundred thousand years, if we are still around as a species, evolution will have identified the ability to consciously switch to system 2 thinking as an advantageous selectable trait, and humans will have evolved to (mostly) possess that ability. Until then, I guess we are stuck with the advice our parents gave us… “Think, then do; not the other way around!”

By Jeremy. January 13th, 2017 at 9:16 am

There are two sides to this coin. Developing skills to know when to switch to system 2 is good, but incomplete. Not everyone will adopt system 2, some decisions need to be made faster than system 2 allows, and system 2 is not a panacea when your reasoning skills don’t match the problem. The other side of the coin is adjusting the setup of the world people live in so that system 1 works well for important decisions. Sometimes, this means just acknowledging that system 1 works pretty well a lot of the time (see Gigerenzer). Sometimes, this means controlling the environment (see behavioral economics). Sometimes, this means training; a novice in a subject may need to use system 2 where a trained expert can arrive at the same result with system 1.

By Stephen Few. January 13th, 2017 at 10:01 am


Regarding your first point, the switch that is needed must be based on an awareness of the difference between situations that are best handled using System 1 thinking and those that are best handled using System 2 thinking. I am certainly not suggesting that all situations demand System 2. Regarding your second point, we will never again live in the simple, familiar world for which System 1 thinking evolved. It is true that many situations remain simple and familiar, and it is also true, as you argue, that some situations that are currently complex can be simplified. Neither of these facts, however, argue against the need for a better switch. I’m quite familiar with Gigerenzer’s work and appreciate it. He would never argue that situations that are complex and unfamiliar should be handled using System 1 thinking. While it is true that through training and a great deal of practice, expertise can be developed that allows particular situations that are complex and unfamiliar at first to become the realm of intution for those who develop expertise. To develop this expertise, however, one must first exercise System 2 thinking over and over again. Only then will the fast decisions of System 1 produce effects comparable to the slow decisions of System 2.

Leave a Reply