Shifting Cognitions from System 1 to System 2


Although my realm of expertise in psychology is in cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), I am always looking to both sharpen and broaden my skills in that area.  I recently participated in a webinar on CBT taught by Bruce S. Liese, Ph.D., where he integrated the knowledge I already possessed, in a unique way that I, previously, had not seen.  When I clearly saw what he was saying, I had an Aha experience

In helping patients change their disturbed or distorted cognitions (i.e. beliefs or thoughts) to more healthy ones, he referred to the distinction Daniel Kahneman had made in his landmark work, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Because I had read Kahneman’s book, I easily followed the illustration provided by Dr. Liese.  Briefly, Kahneman talks about two types of thinking that humans have:  System 1 and System 2. 

System 1 is the dominant thinking process that is automatic, such as starting and driving a car, eating or brushing our teeth.  Once we have learned these behaviors we do not have to think or contemplate what to do next inasmuch as they have become part of our behavioral repertoire.  Insofar as most of the behaviors we need to perform on a daily basis are automatic, we function in System 1 the majority of the time.  System 2 requires much more deliberate thinking in the understanding of more complex tasks that may confront us.  As Dr. Liese pointed out, the problem arises when System 1 processes that are so instilled in our thinking result in the negative feelings of depression, anxiety and more concretely, the words we tell ourselves to make it difficult to complete a goal.

When it is appropriate, I have applied this new insight in treating some of my own clients.  An example of this is my current work with a client who suffers from obsessional thinking that can be most anxiety provoking.  I have explained to him that when he spirals or cycles into his obsessional pattern of thinking he is stuck in System 1 thinking.  This reframing of his problem has given him another perspective at what is driving his very unpleasant manner of thinking and, in so doing, has given him a better handle on it.  Most importantly, he also had the sensation of the light bulb going off in his mind like I had experienced in the webinar.

Those that commit self-destructive acts so common in eating disorders, alcohol or drug related behaviors may be stuck in System 1 thinking that underly the addictive behaviors.  The cognitions that may underly these behaviors can be as automatic as the addictive habits that accompany them.   Shifting from the automatic mind set of System 1 to the more deliberate, but for these individuals more difficult System 2 way of viewing their issues, can provide them with a light at the end of the tunnel. 

My major professor, the late Arnold Lazarus, created the term technical eclectism, that is the tailoring of one’s therapeutic procedures to the specific needs of the client.  The knowledge I gained from Dr. Liese’s webinar has added to my therapeutic armamentarium such that I already have begun to apply it in my clinical practice.  The more techniques a therapist has developed, with the concomitant recognition of when and with whom to apply them, the greater likelihood that therapist  will achieve the desired outcome with a more diverse clinical population.

By docallegro

Consulting Psychologist
Specialties in: Cognitve-Behavioral Interventions, Conflict Resolution, Mediation, Stress Management, Relationship Expertise, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Fluent in Spanish

One reply on “Shifting Cognitions from System 1 to System 2”

…Aha! That makes sense. … well concluded . Having gems like these tucked away in a wall of Titles and Authors are just some words on a page , until brought to light for all to (re) discover. Thank you Doctor. “Aha !”…..pass it along…..

Thanks, Jef, pass it on to your family.

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