System 1 Thinking


The terms System 1 and System 2 thinking were first introduced by Stanovich & West in 2000 but become well known after Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman included them in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ in 2011. Since then they have become a standard part of the Psychologists’ and the Marketers’ lexicon.

As is the case with many academic theories that bridge across into popular thinking, the apparent simplicity and intuitive nature of the theory has led to a degree of misunderstanding and oversimplification in much of the discussion around System 1 and 2 thinking.

What is System 1 Thinking

Much of this misunderstanding comes from the over-simplification of System 1 as Emotional Thinking and System 2 as Rational.

System 1 should be thought more accurately as the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive thinking. It draws upon our innate mental abilities and also upon our accumulated lifetime experiences. It is the brain’s way of pulling together everything that it knows from our lifetime of experience and our current situation and making an immediate decision with very little effort on our part.

All too often marketers believe that they are targeting consumers’ System 1 thinking when they use emotional language to describe their product or show it in a way that communicates what they believe to be its emotional benefit. When a consumer is looking for a relaxing drink just communicating “relaxing” is in fact targeting System 2 thinking.

System 1 is targeted by all those subliminal cues that trigger the unconscious brain to believe not only that the drink will be relaxing, but also that the consumer will enjoy it. The brain takes in everything it sees on the pack, everything that it already knows about the drink from previously seen advertising to past experience of its aroma, taste and effect. It considers all this past experience alongside the current situation – I am tired, thirsty, cold, hungry, full…- and it makes an instant decision.

Targeting System 1 Thinking

Many Marketers believe they are targeting System 1 Thinking by targeting consumers emotions, but this reflects a lack of understanding of how System 1 works.

In order to influence a consumer’s System 1 Thinking we need to hit a wide variety of cues that prompt positive past experiences and match the consumer’s current situation and needs. This is not achieved by just communicating the desired emotion.

It is achieved by understanding your consumers’ historical and current experience with your category and with your brand. By understanding how and why tiny aspects of these experiences prompt emotional responses in the consumer and how you can harness these experiences in your communications and your product experience to consistently prompt positive responses in your consumers.

Targeting System 1 Thinking is more complex and subtle than talking about emotions but, when done properly, it is considerably more effective. We work with big and small brands in markets around the world to create new brands and products, to improve brand and product performances, to improve communications. Small differences in your thinking and approach can make huge differences to your success.

Chris Lukehurst is a Consumer Psychologist and a Director at The Marketing Clinic.

Understanding the connections between the consumer experience and their emotional responses.