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Unconscious Motivation: System 1 & System 2

Posted on October 16, 2014

As I was writing the posts for the last few weeks I started reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a researcher whose work focuses primarily on decision making and who has won the Noble Prize in Economics. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman puts forth two modes of decision making, which he terms System 1 and System 2. In his words:
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.”
The Triad of Unconscious Motivators (avoid pain, seek pleasure, and energy efficiency) which we have been discussing fit firmly into System 1. As we have discussed in several previous posts, the stress and past trauma our clients are struggling with reinforces the reactive and short-term-natured System 1, at the expense of the normal development of the logical and mindful aspects of System 2. This is manifested in a more active amygdala (fear and emotional systems), along with decreased size and activation of both the hippocampus (inhibition and calming) and the pre-frontal cortex (executive and intellectual functioning).
Kahneman’s work is showing the often illogical nature of System 1. Most of the time, System 1 operates well enough to allow us to handle minimal tasks with ease, and to do so with a high level of efficiency (for example 2+2=4 is System 1). At the same time, when confronted with opportunities to avoid pain or seek pleasure, System 1 will often give up logic for these more basic motivators. Thinking Fast and Slow is filled with examples, ranging from humorous to downright scary, on how System 1 can get us in a lot of trouble.
System 2, which is related to mindful contemplation, can correct many of System 1’s mistakes. But here is the catch – we don’t always know which System is in control at any given time. Unfortunately, System 2 believes it is always in control and that every decision and action we make is logical and mindful. So while the research can clearly distinguish between these two Systems, the human mind doesn’t realize System 1 even exists (unless you are reading this blog!).
Many of our clients who, through no fault of their own, have overdeveloped Systems 1 and underdeveloped Systems 2 and live under a great deal of stress rely heavily on System 1 for survival. Due to human nature, they believe they are acting in logical and mindful ways while those around them see the destructive nature of their actions. They are set up to be pulled into habits (energy efficiency) that eliminate pain and elicit pleasure, due to the short-term nature of System 1. We have many unfair labels for this behavior including criminal, mentally ill, drug seeking, entitled, borderline/histrionic, and dysfunctional.
This helps me understand why so many of my clients couldn’t see the impact their behaviors were having on themselves and those they cared about and loved. From their System 1 perspective, they were the logical ones and something was wrong with everyone who didn’t see it their way. We call this denial, disorganized cognitive processing, or delusional, but we have to realize that this is our System 2 judging their System 1. We have to be careful doing this, as our own Systems 1 are just as illogical –  the difference is that most of us have either overcome past histories of trauma or lived healthier lives, and have not fallen into the same unconscious destructive and addictive patterns as many of our clients.
The good news according to Kahneman is that, “System 2 has some ability to change the way System 1 works, by programming the normally automatic functions of attention and memory.” This goes back to last week’s post, and how we can use things like Motivational Interviewing and mindfulness to help build System 2 in our clients. We should expect that most of the time we are engaging with them in System 1, with its often illogical nature, and try to understand their behavior in the context of the Triad of Unconscious Motivators.
We meet our clients at System 1 and help build System 2 by helping them find insight and power in their situation. To do this, we must build relationships that are strong enough for our clients to hear our feedback on the nature and impact of their behaviors, and how there is hope for a better future. As with everything that we are learning about the mind and brain, this change takes time and patience, as the brain will need to restructure itself to support new System 2 thinking and the resulting changes in behavior.
One last note. It is also important that we are healthy and mindful too when we are in System 1. As I learn about the Systems, I can see a great deal of System 1 present in how we structure and deliver helping services. This makes perfect sense due to the stressful nature of our work and limited resources that we receive to do it. Maybe more than any other profession, we must bring our best self to work each day. Bringing System 2 logic into a System 1 world takes a great deal of effort and mindfulness. So once again, my friend, just a gentle reminder to take care of yourselves first so you can give your best to clients!

This week, my challenge to you is to see if you can identify a client who can’t see the negative impacts of their behaviors on themselves and others. Look at their history and present stress levels and see if you can’t find an explanation for why they might be in this mindset. Then see if you can identify an opportunity to help them find insight into this behavior. 

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