A quick refresher on System 1 and System 2:
System 1 – intuitive; automatic; switched on all the time.
System 2 – lazy; deliberate; called upon when greater mental effort is needed.
You can read The Two Modes of Thinking for an better understanding of how they work.
“It is now a well-established proposition that both self-control and cognitive effort are forms of mental work.”
We discussed earlier about attention being a limited resource in The Invisible Gorilla. This idea has ramifications for our day-to-day decision making, since a person who is cognitively busy may resort to using System 1 to make impulsive decisions which may or may not align with System 2.
An interesting paper, titled ‘Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making‘, concludes the following (edited for brevity):
“The characterization of the consumer in previous decision-making research as a ‘thinking machine,’ driven purely by cognition, is a poor reflection of reality. Moreover, examining how consumers actually make decisions in various shopping contexts, suggests that consumers are more often mindless rather than mindful decision makers.”
The researchers used chocolate cake and salad as two options that participants could choose. Participants who were asked to remember a 7-digit number, i.e. were cognitively busy, were more likely to choose the chocolate cake because System 1 made that decision. Furthermore, when asked about whether they would change their decision if presented again with the same choices, ~90% said no, which is an interesting observation, one we will delve into later.
“The conclusion is straightforward: self-control requires attention and effort. Another way of saying this is that controlling thoughts and behaviors is one of the tasks that System 2 performs.”
Ego depletion, or when exerting self-control leads to fatigue and loss of motivation to continue with it, is a controversial theory, but has been studied for decades with many studies indicating positive results. A summary of what’s transpired recently in this area of research can be found here: The End of Ego-Depletion Theory?
It should be noted that ego depletion and cognitive load are different concepts.
“One of the main functions of System 2 is to monitor and control thoughts and actions ‘suggested’ by System 1, allowing some to be expressed directly in behavior and suppressing or modifying others.”
It essentially acts as a filter, allowing thoughts and behaviors you deem in alignment with your belief system and rejecting primal or instinctive thoughts and behaviors that might go against it.
System 2 requires effort to reject intuitive answers and this process can be infuriating and even physically tiring in a fast paced world where information is being constantly bombarded at you from all sides, each eliciting a variety of emotions and thoughts.
The takeaway here is to avoid making important decisions when you feel that you’re running low on self-control, especially after you’ve engaged in high mental effort activities.