Donate to INfire

System 1 & System 2 Thinking

banner 1.2.jpg


This blog overviews research on two everyday thinking processes and considers how we apply this to hearing God. Some Christian circles tend to avoid good thinking, finding it “unspiritual,” others think their way right past God himself, missing the spiritual life available to them.

Daniel Khanerman outlines two systems in his well researched book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (1):

System 1 — operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. Examples of System 1 thinking are instant memory recall, reading faces, or intuiting a solution based on accumulative experience. According Khanerman, this is automatic, lightning speed information processing and can work with complex patterns.

System 2 — allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often complex, requiring slower analytics. System 2 thinking is the harder work. Examples of System 2 thinking are sorting through memory for something, doing your taxes, listening to someone in a very noisy room, assessing a logical argument. These are things that require focus or attention. 

Hardest Questions Chalkboard.png

System 1’s ‘availability heuristic’ means our use of content that is easily available in our mind to make quick judgments. This is because much of our “easy to access” content is what we spend our time with. For example, news media puts certain countries like North Korea on our radar and excludes others like Palau. Information like this feeds our availability heuristic and from there, influences our bias. (Palau may be worse or better than North Korea but most of us wouldn’t associate it as anything but good or neutral.) This is one reason I recommend taking time to read or examine positions that are contrarian or counterintuitive, because  our availability heuristic means we are easily susceptible to ‘group think.’

By sweeping definition, creativity and intuition are System 1 and questioning and analytics are System 2. A question I propose regarding Khanerman’s work is, ‘Where does the Holy Spirit engage with our minds?’ If both System 1 and System 2 are tools we can use in honoring God, then which system does God speak through the most? 

Most of us probably think that we actively hear God more from the intuitive side of our brains. We use tools like prayer, meditation, worship, and journaling. Logic and deeper processing tend to create “proofs” that God was talking to us after the fact, or help us align to his character more. 

Could it be that as we learn, God will use both kinds of thinking to our benefit? It may be useful to acknowledge here that the hardest questions in life, like the existence of evil, aren’t best answered by logic. The best answer to hard questions is theophany. Jesus said it this way, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,  yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39–40). 

Jesus being “life” is like having a very hard day at work and coming home to someone you love and who loves you. It makes all the rough moments fall away and offers us meaning and context for our future. Experientially knowing God should inform our default availability heuristic and also cause us to proceed cautiously using System 2 thinking. Consider Isaiah’s words from God, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts…” (Isaiah 55:8). God has a lot more data on the universe than we do, so it’s wise to proceed cautiously about what we think we know. 

References:  (1) Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 122). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.