Two Systems of Thought
Marketers who want to build a strong social life for their brands can start by better understanding the social nature of thought and action: the interpersonal, cognitive, and emotional triggers that link human interaction with emotional experience.
People essentially have two ways of thinking. Through several decades of research, cognitive scientists have come to recognize them as deeply ingrained, complementary systems; psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman made them the central theme of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). Social cognitive neuroscientists such as Matthew Lieberman have also identified brain regions that map to these two systems, with each playing a role in social interactions.
The first system — often referred to as System One, “reflexive thinking,” or the Thinking Fast system — manages habitual thought. When people take mental shortcuts, have a gut reaction, or form a rapid first impression, they are using this system. Thinking Fast seems to operate effortlessly, often generating first impressions within a tenth of a second. These impressions are shaped by other ingrained and automatic thoughts — current emotional states, prior experiences, habitual attitudes, and social norms — any of which may be related to products or brands in some contexts. The snap judgments of Thinking Fast don’t necessarily register as conscious impressions or decisions, but they can be powerful and self-reinforcing; every time a person acts automatically, a neural pathway is invoked and the thought is made a little stronger and more accessible.
However, the quick impressions of Thinking Fast are not sufficient on their own to meet the challenges of even a relatively uneventful day. People therefore rely on the second cognitive system — known as System Two, “reflective thinking,” or the Thinking Slow system — to process their thoughts, reactions, beliefs, and expectations more deliberately. The Thinking Slow system is not exclusively rational; it is also influenced by emotions. But it comes to the forefront in a more conscious way when people are sufficiently motivated or attentive. The Thinking Slow system takes place in parts of the brain (for example, the prefrontal cortex) where thought processing can feel relatively demanding or draining. The brain has a limited capacity for reflective thinking at any one time.
Although they occur in different parts of the brain, the reflexive (Thinking Fast) and reflective (Thinking Slow) systems operate together. Each influences the other. Social psychologists studying persuasion — such as Richard Petty, John Cacioppo, Robert Cialdini, Alice Eagly, and Shelly Chaiken — have long observed this phenomenon in experiments; when people are distracted or don’t care much about the issue in question, they revert to reflexive thinking. But when the stakes are high or there is less distraction, people tend to engage in more reflective thought. Social neuroscientist William Cunningham has suggested that these two systems work together iteratively; the brain balances their relative influence according to a number of factors, including how motivated the person is to think hard and how much experience he or she has in a given situation.
How does this apply to marketing? Because people are rapid meaning makers through Thinking Fast, and deliberate meaning adjusters through Thinking Slow, the development of brand loyalty is a complex and shifting process. Both thinking systems are involved in processing each impression, and every impression matters. Initial decisions to select or change a product or service may involve the Thinking Slow system. But over time, as people integrate that product or service into their routines, the decision to purchase or use it migrates to Thinking Fast. As habits develop, consumers reach for that brand with less conscious thought. Their perceptions of themselves using the brand, and of others who use the brand, may also change.