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One brain, two systems

How do people make choices?

One brain, two systems

Are we conscious of our own choices?

We have already previously noted that people do not know what they want, and that purchase decisions are made subconsciously. In this article we take a closer look at this phenomenon. We go back to the basics of the human brain. What distinguishes man from animals? Almost everyone will answer that it is our mind or our consciousness. But today, most psychologists agree that we overestimate our conscious mind considerably. Well that is quite logical, because of course we can only judge our consciousness. For our unconscious, we do not notice it that much because it is … unconscious. However, it seems to play a big role in our thinking, our choices, and therefore our human nature.

The two horses of Plato

The Greek philosopher Plato was the first one to write about this. In his work Phaedrus, which is about the influence of one person on another, he compares the human soul to a car with a driver and two horses. The charioteer represents the intellect, the part of us that is the leader and must keep the coach on the right course. However, this is pulled by two very different horses. One horse is stubborn and follows his feelings and urges. It is impulsive and strives for freedom, so it does not simply follow the beaten track. The other horse is properly disciplined and is very careful. It follows the planned route and does what is commanded. It is the job of the charioteer to keep the two in balance and to bring the journey to a good end.

Today’s psychology suggests that the horses represent the two different ways that we reflect. We can think consciously or unconsciously. The unconscious is being led by emotions and therefore responds intuitively, quickly, effortlessly and automatically. It is also known as system 1. The conscious thought, or system 2, is run by logic and analytics, is slow and deliberate. This is the consciousness that we have developed over the course of evolution. It is much newer than our unconscious automatic thinking.

A widespread misconception

We mistakenly think that we make decisions with our conscious mind. We learn from childhood that it is very important to think carefully. We are told that we should not make hasty decisions, and we learn to make lists of pros and cons in order to arrive at an analytical, reasoned decision. This is only partly justifiable. Firstly, there are many daily decisions that we do not even realize we are making: which T-shirt we will wear in the morning, how many lumps of sugar we put in our coffee, and which extra roll we take at the kiosk. We hardly think (consciously) about it. This kind of impulsive decision making is made by system 1, and we ourselves had hardly any influence on this. In addition, decision-making via system 2 still gives no guarantee for success. We have a tendency to over-analyze things too, and we struggle to rank the importance of certain issues. The success of a decision is best judged according to how satisfied you are with it afterwards. Various studies have shown that “think carefully” about the decision and analyzing the advantages and disadvantages can backfire on you.

A popular experiment is one which involves picking out a poster to put on a wall. The group of people which have a mandate to analyze two posters before they choose one, are always tempted to go for the poster which offers the greatest theoretical advantage: Maybe it’s cheaper, the artist has a good name, or the dimensions fit well above the sofa. Afterwards, the group whose choice was influenced by this type of argument (System 2), is often less satisfied with their decision than those who did not have to think about the choice (System 1). i.e. those people who chose a poster because they said it was ‘simply beautiful’.

The importance

Nice story you might be think. But what is useful about it? This theory is really interesting when we take into account that 90% of us think through system 1. And that also applies to our purchasing decisions. For decades, marketers have advertised with arguments that appeal to the rational mind of consumers to persuade them to purchase their products. But if 90% of purchasing decisions are unconscious, there is much to be gained by learning to influence the subconscious mind.

So it pays to delve into these systems of thought, and the different marketing theories based on them. Become aware of the unconscious, and you know you will have success.


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