behavioral science principle #1

Dual-system theory


The dual-system theory—also known as dual processing—explains how two mental systems influence our thinking and decision-making. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman delves into these dual systems:

  1. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional. This system is automatic, doesn’t take much effort, and allows us to complete routine tasks efficiently.
  2. System 2 is slower, logical, and more deliberate. This system steps in when we need to make logical, calculated decisions.

Each system has unique advantages and disadvantages. While System 2 wins out when it comes to things like delayed gratification and cause-and-effect thinking, it is “inferior in its ability to automatically and effortlessly direct everyday behavior.”

HR application

Harvard Business School’s John Beshears and Francesca Gino offer three strategies to harness the power of dual-system theory in the workplace:

  • Tap into System 1: To encourage quick action from employees—for example, opting into a new benefit program—tap into their emotions, clearly explain the value, and simplify the signup process.
  • Engage System 2: To encourage more thoughtful action—for example, choosing a health plan during open enrollment—allow time and space for reflection. When you give employees the time to mull over a decision, they’re more likely to make a deliberate choice rather than stick with what they know.
  • Bypass both systems: Set a new default. For example, instead of asking employees to enroll in a retirement plan, make automatic enrollment the default. (Note: This approach may not work for every organization.)
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