Physics and Astronomy


The Brain's System One and System Two

by Ed Meyer

During the evolution of animals, the ability to make fast decisions was an important survival skill. This is instinct. This is stimulus-response. This is the brain’s System One. System One is fast. System One operates unconsciously. System One is often wrong, but sometimes it is better to be fast than to be right.

About 50,000 years ago, humans started to develop a different way of thinking. This is called System Two. This is the slow, logical, careful thought process that differentiates us from other animals. System Two can creatively solve problems and come up with NEW ideas.

If I pose the problem, “The postage and the envelope together were $11 and the postage was $10 more than the envelope. How much was did the envelope cost?” System One responds immediately, “$1.” System Two, if engaged at all, thinks carefully about the problem and comes up with the correct answer of 50 cents.

Today’s society is very different from the one that produced the current version of the human brain. In today’s society, the most successful people are the people with well-developed, easily engaged System Twos. Success in today’s society requires decisions that are not made instinctively, but by carefully considering all possibilities and their futures ramifications.

Employers are looking for people with good System Twos. Employers need people that will solve their problems by coming up with creative, innovative solutions that minimize costs and maximize profit.

The human race as a whole has a lot of problems. A complete list will include hunger, pollution, poverty, heath care, war, global warming and crime. These problems will not be solved with System One. They will be solved by young, passionate people with well-developed System Twos.

The way System Two is developed is simply by using it. To develop System Two in my students, I give them hard problems to solve. This is my goal when I teach the problem solving classes at and when I teach the Gedanken Institutes in the summer. There is no System One thinking at the Gedanken Institute for Problem Solving.

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