Being Fast and Slow

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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]