books, Psychology

Ego Depletion

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.


books, Psychology

The Invisible Gorilla

In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kanheman describes the idea of attention being a limited resource and observes how people engaged in an intense, high mental effort activity are effectively blind in such instances.

“The defining feature of System 2, in this story, is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary. As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure at the center of the story, System 1. However, there are vital tasks that only System 2 can perform because they require effort and acts of self-control in which the intuitions and impulses of System 1 are overcome.”

In a famous experiment conducted by two researchers at Harvard, they performed the following exercise:

Students were asked to watch a video where two teams were passing a ball around and asked to count the number of passes that a particular team completes. Focusing on the ball is an activity that requires significant attention and renders some viewers oblivious to other things that are happening in the video.

The Invisible Gorilla Video

In the video, a person in gorilla costume moves across the screen and yet remains invisible to around 50% of the participants. This is because when you’re intensely focused on a single activity, you’re prone to missing out on other details.

You can find out more about the experiment and subsequent book they wrote titled “The Invisible Gorilla” on their website.

The second observation is that as you become skilled at a task, its demand for energy decreases, meaning that lesser attention is required for its completion.

“A general ‘law of least effort’ applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

I’ll share a few examples where I’ve observed how engaging in a high-attention activity blinds me to my surroundings and where an increase in skill level corresponds directly with lesser need for attention.

When I’d started learning how to drive a car, driving in traffic meant that my attention was fully on the road and I had almost zero awareness of what was going on in the car. I was working at my maximum cognitive load capacity. Compare this with people who are experienced drivers and you’ll see how they require much lesser attention when driving. 

The second example that comes to mind is when I started learning how to play football. Keeping the ball near your feet under control, moving with it and looking for players to pass requires a tremendous amount of concentration. In the initial stages, moving with the ball while looking up is a difficult task. You are concerned with keeping the ball close to your feet so you don’t lose it and that activity takes up almost all of your attention. This means that looking up for a pass becomes difficult. In this case as well, greater skill equates to less attention. With time, moving with the ball becomes easier. Experienced footballers rarely need to look down while playing. They focus their attention on looking for the perfect pass.

This inability to perceive everything that you’re physically looking at is called as inattentional blindness.

The lesson here is that we should be aware of the possibility of missing out on minor, yet important details when we’re focusing our attention narrowly on a task.

The second is to treat attention as a commodity available only in limited quantity and to realize that at times when the cognitive load is high and we’re stretched, we should avoid doing multiple tasks at the same time. It is only when you’re sufficiently skilled at a task, should you attempt to multitask. 

In colloquial terms, these details are often referred to as hiding in plain sight. A great article on how Nolan uses this technique of misdirection in The Prestige can be found here. 

In fact, almost all magic tricks are based on exploiting this defect. A line from the movie Now You See Me sums it up nicely.

“Come in close. Closer. Because the more you think you see, the easier it’ll be to fool you, because, what is seeing? You’re looking, but what you’re really doing is filtering, interpreting, searching for meaning. My job, (is) to take that most precious of gifts you give me, your attention, and use it against you. Because the closer you look, the less you see.”
books, Psychology

The Two Modes of Thinking

In his book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, on judgement and decision making, Daniel Kanheman starts off by describing the setting in which the readers of his book could benefit the most: the proverbial watercooler, a proxy for social settings where gossip can flourish. Unlike most serious books, which often require you to disconnect from people so that you can focus on the material, he says the following:

“Why be concerned with gossip? Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own. Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to do it, but we can benefit from the informed opinion of others.”

It is indeed an arduous task to debug your own thinking and thus this book, that deals entirely with systematic errors in thinking, called biases, can be difficult to come to terms with. Therefore, Kanheman proposing that we start learning by pointing out the mistakes of others is an ingenious move on his part.

“So this is my aim for watercooler conversations: improve the ability to identify and understand the errors of judgement and choice, in others and eventually in ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them. In at least some cases, an accurate diagnosis may suggest an intervention to limit the damage that bad judgments and choices often cause.”

The two characters of this book, called System 1 and System 2 represent the two modes of thinking, Fast and Slow respectively. They are tools that we’ll employ to understand how our cognitive machinery works.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.

If you wish to see these at work consider look at the following examples:


The capital of India

Orange man with small hands

To most people, all these sentences will conjure up answers almost immediately:

4, New Delhi and Trump.

Observe that you did not have to think too much about it.

Now consider the following examples:

24 x 13


Checking the validity of a logical argument such as

Premise 1: A car will not run without gas.

Premise 2: I don’t have any gas in my car.

Conclusion: My car will not run.

Although trivial, these exercises required a finite amount of your attention to be completed.

Essentially, this is the difference between the two modes of thinking, Fast and Slow, respectively. One is intuitive, automatic, always working and the other slow, deliberate and called to action when the first one doesn’t have an answer. System 2 requires effortful thinking.

I’ll use an example that Kanheman uses to illustrate the autonomy of System 1 and the differences between the characters of our story.

Look at this figure:

What do you observe?

If you’re like most people, you will see that the line at the top is longer than the one at the bottom. But by now you must’ve realized that the twist here is that both lines are equal in length. This simple illusion gives you a lot of information about how these systems work. System 1 is always on and “feels” that the line on top is longer. Despite your system 2 having having formed the belief that the lines are equally long based on the information that I gave you, you will continue to see the first one as longer because System 1 cannot be forced to stop making intuitive judgments and give you quick answers, which as we will see later can be wrong sometimes.

“To resist the illusion, there is only one thing you can do: you must learn to mistrust your impressions of length of lines when fins are attached to them.”

If you observe your day-to-day decision making, you will see the interplay between these two systems, whether it is having an extra piece of cake when you’re tempted or choosing sleep over exercise. In both cases, System 1 will make a split second decision for you, but if you have a strong System 2 you will stop yourself and reconsider that initial impulse.

Why use System 1 and System 2 to explain thinking?

Kanheman uses these because they serve as useful functions. It should be noted that they have no particular residence in the brain, they are just proxies. It makes for compelling storytelling and greater retention of concepts.

“You have been invited to think of the two systems as agents within the mind with their individual personalities, abilities, and limitations.”

This book is one of my favorites and a real eye opener. Happy reading!

As always, comment/criticisms are appreciated.!