How My Favorite Meme Teaches 2 Ways of Thinking
I’ve always had an irrational fear of opening a can of biscuits. As I unwrap the cardboard tube, I never know exactly when the vacuum seal will pop. No matter how hard I try, I can never fully mentally prepare myself. Without fail, the pop takes me by surprise and I startle, dropping the dough on the floor.
System 1 and System 2 Thinking
The meme above represents my favorite way to teach about a foundational concept in social psychology: the dual process model of cognition. As Daniel Kahneman explains, there are two modes of thinking: fast and slow. Sometimes this is called system 1, or automatic processing, and system 2, or controlled processing, respectively. System 1, or automatic processing, is an evolutionarily old pathway that responds to stimuli quickly and automatically, based on instinct or intuition. On the other hand, system 2, or controlled processing, engages functions of the brain that we consider uniquely human—our prefrontal cortex for logic and reasoning. System 2 thinking is less efficient. It takes more time and energy to do, but it allows us to make well-reasoned decisions and behave in intentional ways. We respond with system 1 or automatic processes first, and system 2 or controlled thinking kicks in later, if we have the time and mental resources.
Our social and physical world is highly complex and difficult to process—”a blooming buzzing confusion” as William James wrote. Automatic processing allows us navigate the world efficiently without expending too many cognitive resources. For example, think back to your last commute to work. Did you have to think consciously about turning the key in your ignition to start your car? Chances are you barely remember your drive, because it didn’t require much conscious processing. Suppose a car suddenly swerved into your lane. If you were a skilled driver, you would probably brake and steer out of the way automatically, before you even knew what happened. As your conscious pathway kicked in split seconds later, then you could make more strategic decisions about whether you should steer back into the lane after the car is past, or whether you should wait for traffic before continuing. Ideally, when automatic and controlled processing work together, they keep you safe and help you meet your goals.
However, sometimes system 1 and system 2 thinking are in conflict with each other. The biscuit meme is the perfect metaphor for this conflict. Consciously, I know that the loud pop and small explosion will not hurt me, and as much as I try to prepare myself for it, my automatic response kicks in faster. I yelp and the biscuits are on the ground before I even know what happened.
Implicit and Explicit Bias
We engage automatic and controlled processing in social situations as well. When we meet new people, we usually form impressions of them quickly and automatically based on previous experiences or stereotypes.
You may have heard of implicit vs. explicit bias, which map on to automatic and controlled processing, respectively. Due to associations we’ve picked up from the culture that surrounds us, most people harbor implicit biases toward stigmatized groups like racial minorities and people with disabilities. For example, implicit ableism may lead someone to avoid a disabled person for fear of contagion or in hopes of skirting an awkward interaction. Or we may make automatic assumptions about how capable someone is for a job.
The good news is that explicit conscious bias is in decline. If people are aware that they harbor unconscious bias and are motivated to rectify it, they can engage their controlled processing, examine their thoughts and behaviors, and change them. In the example of ableism, this could mean overcoming initial hesitation and engaging in a conversation with the disabled person. When considering a disabled person for a job, you could make a point to ask about their previous experience and do some research on accessibility. Correcting bias after recognizing it in your behavior becomes easier with practice. Your attitudes and behavior will become more automatic over time.
As for my biscuit drama, I now consciously set myself up for success by opening biscuits over a pan.