System 1 vs System 2

At the heart of buyer behavior is our beautifully mysterious Homo Sapien brain.

Human skull and brain

This 3-pound organ is singularly responsible for understanding the universe, and choosing between one and two-ply toilet paper.

Our brains are incredibly busy. And to say incredibly busy is an understatement.

It makes me tear up thinking about how amazing the brain is (want to see mine?) .

Because the world is so incredibly complex and busy (we are exposed to 20,000 products every single day) nature has designed a whole set of decision shortcuts.

This is where System 1 and System 2 come in. It’s a framework developed by Dr. Daniel Kahneman—a brilliant behavioral economist.

System 1 and 2 help us navigate the world.

System 1 is used to make rapid decisions. It’s the default state of the brain. How are you feeling today? The first thing that came to mind was delivered via System 1.

System 2, on the other hand, is used to make important decisions. When you are holding your newborn niece you are 100% in System 2 mode.

There is one important detail we should mention here: System 2 is lazy. Incredibly lazy.

And this is by design. Thinking takes up significant brain power. And evolution is all about smart energy usage. So the brain has millions of controls to manage energy usage. Using System 2 sparingly is at the core of this energy policy.

The policy is: for all simple decisions go to System 1. Only bother System 2 for the important stuff.


When System 2 is away System 1 is at the wheel.

There are 2 more details we should mention about System 1:

– It’s short-term focused. It seeks immediate gratification.

– It’s emotionally charged. Angry, happy, excited, depressed, irritated, blissful. All those feelings.

To influence buyers you need to influence their System 1. Don’t bother with System 2. It’s too smart for us.

Up until very recently, every economic behavioral model assumed all purchase decisions were System 2 driven. Thanks to fMRI technology we know the truth, which is that economists were wrong.

System 1 is behind nearly all purchase decisions.

I know what you’re thinking, “No way that’s true. I bought a new car last year. Spent 3 months researching. Test drove 7. Read Consumer Reports. And then pulled the trigger. That was 100% a System 2 decision.”

Hate to burst your bubble but it most likely wasn’t. You probably decided on the car long before reading Consumer Reports. Maybe someone you admire/envy had that car, or maybe you were so delighted that sales guy who showed you the car didn’t seem pushy at all. But you can’t possibly tell yourself this is why you spent $32,000, so you do what all consumers do: you use System 2 (safety rating of the car, fuel efficiency, overall Consumer Reports ranking) to justify a System 1 experience.

Frictionless Commerce™ is a System 1 influence agency.