Kahneman's System 1 & 2 
Implications for CBT


In a previous article which can be downloaded here, I advocated using a dual mode model of the personality in cognitive-behavioural therapy. Although cognitive-behavioural therapy prides itself on its scientific approach to psychotherapy, when it comes to the theoretical foundations of the cognitive model I have always found it somewhat lacking in detail. Yes, we know that thoughts, feelings and behaviour are closely interlinked and this has been proven beyond doubt experimentally. However, as a theoretical model for the personality I find it overly simplistic even if it makes it easy to explain to clients. I have also argued previously, that some clients express a need for a more meaningful explanation. Introducing system 1 and 2 into the model goes a long way in providing that missing theoretical foundation in my view. System 1 corresponds to automated (bottom up) processes such as negative automatic thoughts and behaviours and system 2 correspond to rational top down processing a type of processing which is indeed the whole point of cognitive-behavioural therapy. It appears a bit like the old heart-head split, but is a little bit more ‘yin yang’ in that they are ‘contained’ in each other. Learning to identify and challenge type 1 processing and by activating and switching to rational type 2 processing is what it is all about. Some might think that this is obvious and there is no need to spell it out, but I consider this information paramount for both therapist and client. In a sense, this is true metacognitive thinking; creating a platform for us to fully understand what exactly we’re doing when we’re carrying out cognitive-behavioural interventions. And yes, it might not suit all clients, but at least the therapist ought to have a helicopter-view over the process. Instead of saying to clients: we think your problems started in childhood but we do not need to explore that in detail, we can now say: your problems are due to unhelpful or erroneous system 1 processing which we can correct using cognitive-behavioural methods.


As already mentioned, I have explored the notion of the inner child superimposed on the cognitive-behavioural model. I also presented the complementary model of the personality as a way of forming a unified understanding of the personality and especially how it appears to function in a dualistic fashion which so inspired the pioneers in quantum physics. The wave-particle problem is in fact not really a problem it only presents as such because of our limited ability to accept that the world is not reducible to Newtonian physics. This was Bohr’s ‘solution’ to the problem and perhaps inspired by Henri Bergson’s metaphysical division of mind into a part which was registering lived time (duration) and a part which he called the geometrician as it was inspired by a Newtonian worldview. Kahneman’s descriptions of system 1 and 2 as two separate modes of thinking within the area of judgement and decision-making in experimental psychology fits well with this dual mode mind.


Whereas Kahneman does not extend his theories much beyond what can be derived from experiment and mostly remain within the specific cognitive domain of judgement and decision-making, I would like to use his ideas to hypothesize and expand much beyond what can be deducted from experiment and explore how the findings can be relevant to psychotherapy. Rather than ask specific task-driven ‘experiment-friendly’ questions and relay information about system 1 and 2, I would like to ask fundamental questions such as ‘who am I?’ and ‘how am I?’ and see how system 1 and 2 can tell us about that. I will suggest that system 1 and 2 do not only influence judgement and decision-making in a task-related sense but that the human personality fluctuates between system 1 and system 2 modes of thinking much like the child mode and adult mode previously presented. In this model, system 1 and 2 operates at the identity level of the personality which means that they determine how we feel about ourselves and how we answer questions such as ‘who am I?’.


The dual model of the personality I have proposed, explored the psychotherapeutic notion of the inner child within a cognitive-behavioural framework. It explored the similarities between negative automatic thoughts and the part of the personality identified as ‘child part’. Instead of viewing this inner narrator in a largely negative context it was suggested that the traditional approach to dealing with negative thought processes was, in many situations, overly simplistic and failed to harvest the richness of the cognitive-behavioural model and the discovery of automatic thought processes which underpinned it. The child part needed nurturing as well as boundaries and by literally putting flesh to the bones of these automatic processes it offered a more acceptable and meaningful narrative and enabled patients to take ownership of the therapeutic process quicker and more intuitively. Kahneman’s model works well here in that system 1 would correspond to the automated thought processes and thus child mode. It seems obvious to me that system 1 thinking which is fast and automated is equivalent to the automated thought processes Beck identified in the therapy room. He clearly described two separate types of thought processes, one that the patient would readily share with the therapist and another which was only semi-conscious and which commented on the process of therapy but would often remain hidden to both therapist and patient. The cognitive model aimed at revealing this second type of thinking and thus freeing the patient of the underlying maladaptive schemata.

From an experimental view there can be no doubt that there is a fast and slow network in the brain. Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense and the idea has been around since the James-Lange theory of emotion which stipulated bottom-up emotional processing had primacy over the slower top-down cognitive (thinking) processes. Much later, with the emergence of the cognitive revolution the precise opposite result was obtained with Schachter and Singer's famous 1962 experiment. Kahneman’s research would suggest that both proponents were right; sometimes system 1 processes have primacy and sometimes system 2 is in charge, depending on the task at hand. Joseph Le Doux has identified some of the neural strata behind the two systems which was disseminated to a larger audience by Daniel Goleman in his book emotional intelligence. Antonio Damasio’s as-if body loop is also an example of the interplay between system 1 and 2 processes and the essential role emotions and the body (system 1) have in decision-making.  


Why is this important to psychotherapy?  


The aim of Cognitive-behavioural therapy is to make the patient more aware of the automatic thought processes which we have seen might well correspond to system 1. Kahneman appears to spend much time designing studies which reveal and at the same time discredits system 1 processes, thus advocating for the greater good of employing system 2 processes when facing cognitive tasks such as estimates of probability and economic decision-making. In psychotherapy, however, the potential might be broader. Firstly, the goal would be to develop an awareness and acceptance of the dual modes of system 1 and 2. Secondly, the patient need to learn how to live with and care effectively for both systems. Many patients (as well as cognitive-behavioural therapists and researchers) appear to be the victims of an internal battle between system 1 and 2. System 2 often barely recognises the existence of system 1 but is ironically itself largely controlled by system 1 processes or attempts at avoiding the influence of system 1, especially when succumbing to clinical disorders such as anxiety and depression. This is an age-old conflict which also Freud described using the concepts of Id and Ego. It need not be an eternal battle between impulses and reason. Learning to activate system 2 processing is a first step but does not fully address the complex interface between system 1 and 2. In both cognitive-behavioural therapy and in Kahneman’s approach to economic decision-making the solution appears to be a mindless disenfranchisement of system 1. It is described as an old rudimentary part of human evolution and one that has had great difficulty adapting to modern living. In this way it is similar to Bergson’s geometrician dismissing the concept of duration outright, but in doing so committing an enormous metaphysical error. Duration, the art of BE-ing, such as practised in mindfulness and meditation, is now recognised as an integral part of psychological health. This equals sound system 1 processing.


Teaching system 2 (adult mode) how to look after system 1 (child mode) is all it takes and this is the main purpose of psychotherapy in any school. Narrative, analytical, mentalization, systemic, cognitive-behavioural, mindfulness-based, schema, body-oriented approaches all seek to create a more harmonious coexistence between these two parts of the personality. Patients and ‘normal’ people often present with either too much system 1 or too much system 2. This inbalance or preferred modus operandi can affect all areas of life and be very specific involving only relationships or work, or be totally all-encompassing as in the personality disorders (too much of either system 1 or 2) or situation or task specific such as in the phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorders.


To most people, becoming aware of system 1 and 2 would seem an impossible task, but just as Beck pointed out is not that difficult. Yes, it involved introspection and awareness training. A psychoeducational process is required. The patient is encouraged to learn to identify situations where system 1 processes ‘takes over’ and hijacks the personality (trigger events). Likewise, the patient would need to learn when system 2 thinking becomes detrimental and neglectful (such as in rumination and intellectualising/affect avoidance). Mindfulness is a good example of an approach which aims to create balance between system 1 and 2. System 2, which often engage in disrupting and attacking system 1 processes is taught how to appreciate and accept system 1 without interference. Initially, it is hard not to interfere but with a little practise system 2 learns to be quiet and accept the activation of system 1. The quiet attention to system 1 has a calming effect on system 1 which relaxes it and allows system 2 processes to occur without the ‘background noise’ of an overactive system 1. Adult mode is restored. This is the main effect of mindfulness practise but this is not really explained as the mindfulness method prices itself on simply being a collection of ‘‘mind training techniques’ without the need to a theoretical foundation. This stance is shared with cognitive-behaviour therapy, which stipulates being a collection of tried and tested, effective therapeutic methods without the need for a (speculative) theoretic foundation or comprehensive psycho-developmental model. What counts is whether it works in practise and can be shown to be effective in clinical trials. Of course, cognitive-behavioural therapy would never describe itself as atheoretical. It is firmly based in the experimental psychological tradition, inspired by behavioural therapy and cognitive therapy. However, if we look at the theoretical foundations it soon becomes quite speculative just as it criticised psychoanalytic therapy for being. It does not provide a comprehensive theory of the human personality or even how it functions. Yes, behaviourism is well-founded but the addition of the cognitive aspects of human functioning is not. The Cognitive-behavioural model suggests that the personality consists of cognitions, emotions, physiological reactions and behaviours. Hardly a deep or revolutionary concept as this is something most people would accepts by observing the content of their mind and bodies.  And then the model makes a bit of a leap of faith; emotional and behavioural disturbances are created by malfunctions in cognitive processes and these processes can be grouped into negative automatic thoughts, dysfunctional assumptions and core beliefs. What? Where is the evidence for that? Yes, it is a hypothesis but it is not really a theory that explains why this is the case. Oh, cognitive-behaviour therapists would say, but it works and makes sense to the patients. That might be, but it is not much of a theoretical foundation and it does little to explain why it works. Why, for instance, does negative thought result in negative emotional states? Why do the personality appear to consist of an interplay of thoughts and emotions, how does it develop etc. We might find that patients who present with depressive symptoms does indeed rapport excessive negative thoughts as a result of dysfunctional assumptions and negative core beliefs, but this observation does not necessarily prove beyond doubt that core beliefs exists or that they are the direct cause of depression. There is no doubt that the concepts advocated by the cognitive-behavioural model are very useful in psychotherapy but they have some way to go before they can form a coherent and comprehensive theory of psychological development. In the ‘little hans’ case study Freud developed his ideas regarding the oedipus complex. How does gender identification processes play out during childhood development? Is there even such a thing as gender identification, is it purely physiological processes or are there distinct psychodevelopmental stages involved? Cognitive-behavioural theory has absolutely nothing to say about this. Some would say that as a widely used form of psychotherapy it is quite surprising how limited the theory behind the method really is.


Let us have a closer look at how gender development might be understood via system 1 and 2 thinking processes. At some point during child development behaviours which suggests the presence of feelings of love and sexuality can be observed and validated. Loving feelings and sexual desires arise as a result of system 1. When behaviours consistent with love and affection emerge, parental figures in the child's environment respond to it. The responses can lay between the negative (punishment, ignoring, taking advantage of) to the positive (affirming and validating the child’s feelings and enabling a sense of ownership/autonomy and role modelling how to communicate those feelings and desires in a socially acceptable way).  


If the child is met in a negative way it will develop ways to protect itself. It will employ system 2 processes to suppress the system 1 processes which have shown themselves to be ‘unhelpful’ or dangerous. Let’s say that a little boy gradually develops stronger and stronger sexual feelings directed towards the mother. The mother and father might recognise and validate those feelings in the child and they might even manage to show their love and affection for each other in a way that does not leave the boy feeling that he has to compete for his mother’s love. At some point during development the thought might well arise in the little boys brain that he could replace the father. Such a thought would be the result of system 2 processes. It might provoke an anxious response in system 1 as an expectation of an pending fight or struggle. As such it would be an unpleasant thought and one that could easily be replaced with a more helpful thought such as ‘I want to become more like Dad’ and by observing mother-father interactions the boy would internalise positive way of interacting with the opposite sex. This process would be universal and be similar for boys and girls irrespective of whether their sexual feelings would naturally be directed towards the opposite sex, the same sex or both. The process Freud described was in my view not the optimal solution to the ‘problem’. Freud described a situation where sexual feelings were potentially threatening or unacceptable and where the parents were unable to ‘allow’ and respond to children's sexual feelings and the situation ultimately presented as a competition between son and father. It might well be that a child during this period experience and express strong negative feelings (anger, jealousy) towards the other parent but the healthy response from the parents would be to accept and allow those feelings as well. The message would be that it is okay to have sexual feelings and angry feelings and that, in fact, the parents (or parental figures) appreciate those feelings. The above process would result to two different outcomes. Where the child’s feelings are not met at all appropriately, the child develops ways to protect itself from the impulses and drives arising from system 1. Some part of system 2 would be devoted to control and repress system 1. In the positive outcome, the child would learn how to shape and allow for the natural processes arising in system 1 to play out in interpersonal relationships. It would learn to allow the feelings to arise, but also the ‘rules’ for how and when to express those feelings.


Inner vs outer reality


James Olson’s ‘the whole brain path’ and Gendlin’s ‘felt sense’. Not quite the same as the dualistic shift of identification with left brain’s language-based ‘world view’, allowing to transform one’s reality to a bottom-up right brain core self driven being-in-the-world. This is more than simple mindfulness or focussing. This is a fundamental shift in perceptive reality and incomprehensible to left brain thinking. Training the mind to enable these shifts in reality allows for a dual awareness where both realities can co-exist. Most people working with energy psychology would argue that dualistic thinking is wrong based on the philosophical distinction between mind and matter. Dualistic thinking insists that ‘things’ are either right or wrong, good or bad etc. The dual awareness training I am advocating is something completely different although it deals with duality. Olson would argue that the left brain is fundamentally dualistic whereas the right is holistic. This is true but this is not what I am talking about. Olson’s arguments do not explain that the whole brain is dualistic, i.e. has a left and a right side with incompatible ‘world views’. The felt sense is being produced by the right brain similarly to the way left brain constructs reality using words and concepts. Switching to right brain processing is hard because the left brain is conditioned to prevent it. Theoretically, it is the opposite process of social constructivism i.e nativism. Dualistic nativism.

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