THE BOON OF BEING IN BOTH MINDS - The complex dynamics of consumer decision making

Sreyoshi Maitra, Executive Director, Market Strategy & Understanding (Delhi) & Lead Shopper Practice, Ipsos in India


Psychologists have been interested in the two modes of thinking and offered many labels to them. The most common being System 1 and System 2, as Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman had identified.

System 1 represents those fast, automatic thoughts we continually process, often without our awareness. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities, that deserve it.

Is System 1 the only moment of truth?

As Kahneman describes it, “We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders.”

Relating this to marketing, research has found that consumers don’t spend much time thinking deeply about the choices they make. Instead, the brain takes shortcuts to enable rapid, almost intuitive judgments. We are happy with ‘good enough’ options and don’t have the mental resources to go after the ‘best’ each time. It is simpler to do what has worked before – the basis of entrenched habits.

Ergo, there is a strong tendency to focus largely on System 1 behavior, when we consider consumer decision making. Thus, we often orient all our marketing initiatives, to ensure that we catch the consumer in the first instance.

Could System 1 run smoothly, if System 2 didn’t have its back?

The interesting thing is, both Systems 1 and 2, are active, simultaneously. While System 1 runs automatically, System 2 is normally in a low-effort mode.

Further, System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions and intuitions. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs. And when all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification.

Albeit, the division of work 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, unless it stumbles onto something new. Then it sends an SOS signal to System 2.

Is System 1 versus System 2, really an either this or that reaction?

Most of us have a natural comfort with binaries; we think in terms of either-or, this or that, on one hand vs. on the other hand, to control complex phenomena into manageable structures.

Breaking down the brain into two distinct ‘systems’ has been extremely helpful for simplifying the complexities of cognition. Thus ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’, have been the dominant paradigms embraced by market researchers, to interpret decision-making.

This is largely because, the conventional model of cognition had positioned the brain as a ‘passive receiver’ of information, with a linear path of information flow à we perceive, we process, we act.

Hence, we often tend to tag a response to stimuli, as either a System 1 or a System 2 reaction.

However, neuroscience has demonstrated, that our brain does not actually passively wait for information, it is on the contrary in the ‘always on’ mode. The brain is always active; we are endless learning machines, continuously collecting experiences, which form the foundation for our anticipations and expectations. A good way to think of brain functioning, is like ‘Google Search’ as opposed to a hard drive, loading our stored memories.

In reality, these two worlds are not mutually exclusive and they do not work exclusive to each other. They work in tandem and together help us to take decisions and make choices.

Attributing the human mind to the duality of thinking, could be a bit of an oversimplification.

Our everyday experience with the two minds.

Picture this.

You are at a departmental store with the objective of picking up your regular brand of shampoo.

You arrive with a clear agenda of navigating to the familiar hair care shelf, picking up the brand of your choice. You know the colour and shape of the pack of this well-known brand and so spotting it on the shelf is not a tough task. You only need a shampoo for now, so you don’t plan to stay longer at that store aisle.

System 1 is guiding you so far.

The brand relationship has become a habit. Reasons for initial choices, that led to habits, are forgotten.

Now, you notice a poster of a new brand of leave-on hair serum, that controls frizz.

It catches your interest, because, no conditioner has been able to tame your frizzy hair so far. You look for the product, that is displayed on a pedestal nearby. After reading     about its ingredients and value proposition and it fits in well with your requirement; then you read that this product works best in combination with its shampoo from the same range – the serum to be applied, after using their shampoo. You ponder for a while, and then buy both the serum and the shampoo of this new brand. This is where System 2 steps in. The moments of consciousness, when our rules get reviewed and as consumers, we become more open to change, basis new stimuli.

Similarly, we would come across many instances, when Systems 1 and 2 thinking work together, to drive us to our decisions. The mental processing of System 1 and System 2 thinking does not take place in a mutually exclusive manner, independent of one other. It happens more on a gradient, rather than in a simple ‘this or that’ way. 

So, next time someone impatiently asks you to stop being fickle and ‘stick to one mind’, you don’t necessarily have to agree.

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