A 10,000 foot view of how we choose our next action

In trying to understand how products change behavior, I’ve had a persistent problem – there are too many options.  Yep.  There are literally hundreds of different mechanisms that affect behavior and can be used to change it (see Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases, Goldstein’s Yes!, or the Marketing Sciences Institute’s recent book).   So, I’m writing up a quick summary of the top-level themes across the literature that I find most useful, when thinking about behavior change.

Here are the themes so far:

  1. We have two very different modes of “thinking”: intuitive and rational
  2. Most of the time, we’re not actually “choosing” what to do next
  3. Habits drive unconscious behaviors in predicable ways (cue + routine + reward)
  4. It also helps to know the rules of thumb our minds use to avoid work in decision-making
  5. Our prior experiences and our explanations of those experiences drive future behavior
  6. Consciously and unconsciously, we seek positive experiences and avoid negative ones (duh!)

That’s way too much to go into with one blog post, so I’ll focus on them one at a time.  Here’s the first theme:

We have two very different modes of “thinking”: intuitive and rational

While we may like to think that we’re calm, consciously rational people, we know that very often we actually react to things emotionally or intuitively.   Psychologists have a well-developed understanding of these two modes of thinking – rational versus intuitive – called Dual Process Theory.  Our intuitive mode (also called “System 1”), is blazingly fast, and automatic, but we’re largely unconscious of its inner workings.    It uses our past experiences and a set of simple rules of thumb to almost immediately give us an intuitive evaluation of a situation – an evaluation we feel through our emotions[1].  It’s generally quite effective in familiar situations (where our past experiences are relevant) and does less well in unfamiliar situations.

Our rational mode (“System 2”) is slow, focused, self-aware and what most of us consider “thinking”.   We can rationally analyze our way through unfamiliar simulations, and handle complex problems with System 2.  Unfortunately, System 2 is woefully limited in how much information it can handle at a time (we struggle holding more than 7 simple numbers in our heads at once!), and thus relies on System 1 for much of the real work of thinking.  These two systems work independently of one another, in parallel, and can disagree with one another – like when we’re troubled by the sense that, despite our careful thinking, “something is just wrong” with a decision we’ve taken.

Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, and Kahenman, in Thinking Fast And Slow, provide two descriptions of the inner workings of System 1 and System 2 in great detail.[2]   However, the concept is an ancient one – going at least back to Aristotle and Plato.  Why is the distinction between intuitive and rational thinking important for Action Design?  It’s the foundation for how we decide what to do at each moment of our lives.

[1] The Somatic Marker Hypothesis;  see Damasio et al. (1991)

[2] Gladwell (2007), Kahneman (2010).  Gladwell’s book is a short, high-level, accessible narrative, while Kahneman is a very detailed and thorough analysis of the two systems written for a general audience.