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  1. Applying Kahnemann’s Two System Model to Therapy

    In 2011 Daniel Kahneman published a highly influential book – Thinking Fast and Slow – for which he won the Nobel Prize[i]   While his book is an economics text, I’ve found the model to be extremely helpful in therapy.

    In it he outlines 2 systems within us[ii]:

    System 1  FAST

    System 2  SLOW

    Automatic, rapid feelings and thoughts, just happen, there will be a sensation in the body, however slight

    Deliberate thought, takes effort  


    Example  Doing the sum 2 + 2

    Example  Doing the sum 17 x 24

    Example  Speaking in your native language

    Example Speaking in a language you’re learning 


    We can use this model to help us understand ourselves.  Imagine a friend has asked you to go for a night out.   There are many possible reactions to this – just some examples are :

    System 1  FAST

    System 2  SLOW

    Possible Outcome

     Excited, pleased, a small   burst of energy


     I’d like to go but I can’t   leave my partner to look   after the kids again


     Have a dilemma – to go   or not to go

     Sinking feeling, thought ‘oh   no’


     I’m too tired but I ought to   go

     Feel bad for not wanting   to go, make yourself go

     Feeling unsure, nervous,   panic


     They’re only asking me out   of politeness


     Get more anxious, feel   worse about yourself


    If you’re depressed or anxious, these feelings and thoughts can churn around within you in a way that is very distressing and confusing.  In therapy we would explore what is happening in each part of you, and find a way forward.

    The first thing that can help is to be curious about what your Fast system is telling you – these instant reactions may have crucial information about what you want or need for yourself.  Because they just happen you can reassure yourself that it’s ok to feel or think this way.

    You can also think about your Slower response.  Your thinking will be strongly influenced by your values, upbringing and beliefs.  Slow thinking encompasses what you think others want or need from you

    In therapy, we would explore what is going on in each System or part of you and then find a way forward.    There are limitless combinations of feelings and thoughts in this example, but here are a few ways this could go:

    System 1  FAST   :       Excited, pleased, a small burst of energy

    The message system 1 has for you is – “I’d like to go”  
    (although it seems obvious, these simple messages can be lost in all our complicated thinking)

    System 2 SLOW  :      Thought “I can’t leave my partner to look after the kids again”

    Scenario A

    “I feel guilty if I do anything for me”

    This is a long-standing response – a BELIEF (“I don’t matter”) and an EMOTION (guilt) that has developed over time (possibly from being a child).  If you don’t go you might end up resenting your partner.

    Alternative response – know that it’s ok to do things for yourself too, and check it out with your partner (they might be fine with it).  You go, and you have a good time. 

    Scenario B

    “I want to be fair and my partner has looked after the kids a lot recently”

    This might be realistic and a caring response (your VALUE is to share childcare fairly)

    You might discuss with your partner and decide not to go as they need a break, and you explain to your friend.  This is a helpful response as you have balanced your partner’s needs with your own wishes, and although you may be disappointed at missing out, you also feel satisfied that you’ve done the right thing.  You won’t resent your partner because it’s been a conscious choice.

    Scenario C

    “I’ll go anyway – it doesn’t matter about them”

    In this scenario you are not taking into account what your partner might need.  If you often do this, your reaction isn’t balancing their wishes with your own, and is probably putting your relationship under strain.  Although it might give you a short-term fix, in the long run it may not be best for you.

    An alternative response, is to check out with your partner how they feel about you going and then take a decision. 

    These examples show how a simple interaction can have many different meanings for different people. 

    In therapy I don't view any of these responses as right or wrong.  The important thing is to know and understand yourself as a basis for making more balanced and helpful choices.  


    [i] Published following decades of research with his collaborator Amos Tversky

    [ii] We should add that he does not see them as literal ‘systems’ but “expository fictions …. a psychodrama between two fictitious characters” [interview by Lea Winerman in Monitor Staff February 2012, Vol 43, No. 2]


  2. Attachment Theory was first conceived by John Bowlby in the late 1950s, and developed by others, notably Mary Ainsworth.  In my mind it remains the single most important theory we have in therapy.

    Bowlby observed that an infant strives to form a bond - to attach - to its caregiver and that this bond is essential for survival and emotional well-being.  The way in which the main caregiver responds will set the ground for the infant’s attachment style*.

    Curiously, this drive to attach to another person persists throughout life, long after a person has become physically independent and is one of the main drives behind seeking a partner.  This may be to do with maintaining a stable bond in order to raise children, yet it continues long after children have grown up.

    While Freud emphasised the sex drive, attachment seeking appears to be at least an equal drive in pair-bonding.  In adulthood, the attachment figure is likely to be a partner, spouse, or may be a parent or a close friend or family member.  

    In their book Adult Attachment Feeney and Noller observe that such a relationship is qualitatively different from other friendships: “once attachment to a particular figure has formed, proximity to that figure provides security that other figures cannot”.

    While the process of bonding may happen quickly, adjusting to loss (to detachment) can take much, much longer.  Feeney and Noller note that a sense of attachment persists even after the other person is no longer available, through separation or death.  This is why the loss of a parent or partner can be so painful.

    Any loss needs to be grieved, sadness and anger felt and released.  This needs then to be followed by comfort and soothing.  When the person being grieved is the one who would have offered comfort, then grieving and mourning can be extremely difficult, and it may seem there is no way out of it.

    At these times it is important to find comfort and warm support from others, friends, family or maybe a therapist.  A therapist can help you develop care and compassion within yourself, so that you can self-soothe and take care of yourself through a difficult time.


    * there are many websites offering a good introduction to attachment style - for example