Unleashing Social Super Powers – Can I train my brain to be better at using System 2?

08 Jan, 2020
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Let me start with a short recap of my previous post. The reason we got to this point. I talked about the difference between being a true expert and relying on expert intuition. Sharing the struggles of a millennial social scientist that often gets asked if we can train our brain to be better at using System 2. Because, well, I’m going on stage talking about this stuff, so I better have an answer and step-by-step guide for how to achieve this.

And then I have to disappoint by saying that there is no such list of exercises and training. That I do have some suggestions, but it does not come in a ‘5 easy steps to reach your full System 2 potential – template’

After some chit chat and polite advice, we very often circle back to the same phrase: 

But seriously. There must be something that I can do to train my brain to be better at using my system 2, right?

You see, it’s not that we are prone to use either system necessarily, it’s the fact that these social heuristics and biases are affecting everything we do without us being aware of it. And that’s exactly the crux of this thing. 

Tons of advice on that. But please, don’t take anything too seriously. If you want my advice, I’d say it comes down to a few things: Reflection, toning down the judging part, getting comfortable being uncomfortable, and countering ego depletion. 

Reflection, reflection, reflection

Honestly, your best shot is to be aware of these heuristics and biases that affect your life as a result of System 1. Being able to recognise these heuristics and biases, whilst being aware in which ‘world’ you are operating, will help you make less biased decisions. And since you made it through this post so far, congratulations! You’re on the right track. Awareness is a great first step. If you can pinpoint where System 1 might have given you suboptimal results, and be able to reflect on that and adjust where necessary, you’ll be ahead of most teams and organisations. 

The bad news is that this is a lifelong learning track. You will get better, but it will go slowly. Learning to ask the right questions, observe without judgement, and admit when you were wrong just take time to master… Like in many cases, it’s the road and repetition that will help you. Starting to recognise patterns in behaviour, communication and collaboration will help you in reaching your goals. 

Tone down on the judging part

Just to be clear, I’m not judging here. Judging and using stereotypes are brilliant strategies (heuristics) to make sense of the world and to categorise. The thing is, that in some cases this unconscious judging can really harm you. 

We all have that weird person in our team/organisation. You’re thinking about someone, aren’t you? The one asking the silly questions, posing irrelevant ideas and suggestions, always disrupting the meeting. His name is Harry, enchanté. Well, that’s what Danielle Braun and Jitske Kramer call this person in their book

At first glance, Harry may seem a bit weird. That’s your system 1 categorising and processing information for you. It probably lets you suffer from the fundamental attribution error: our tendency to overemphasise personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behaviour. To illustrate: 

>> When someone else writes a bug, it’s because he’s stupid, incapable or simply a bad developer. <<

>> When you write a bug, it’s because you had a rough night, no sleep, just a bad day, or a herd of people bugging you all day (<– fellow linguistics lovers, unite!). <<

If ‘Harry’ says something weird, it’s because he/she is weird. 

But what if Harry is not weird, but just different? What if his/her ideas aren’t that crazy. In fact, they might offer a new perspective that can really help. If you want to overcome this fundamental attribution error, you’ll have to invest in the interpersonal relationship. Get to know someone on a personal level. That will help you take into account situational factors when judging someone else’s behaviour, which will be less biased. 

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

This doesn’t necessarily sound like fun, I know. But it will help you make less biased, more rational decisions. That has something to do with a cognitive bias called ‘overconfidence’. More specifically, the difference between being a true expert and relying on expert intuition

If you are relying on expert intuition (your system 1), you are probably being blindsided by overconfidence. Want to know if you’re about to make the ‘right’ (less biased) decision? Gather some people and let them make you feel uncomfortable. Fun! Let them ask you  questions that make you doubt your decision. Ask for counter arguments. If you can still stand by your decisions without being (too) uncomfortable, go ahead! Oh, you can only do this when you’re in a culture of trust where it’s safe to fail. Otherwise it’ll just be bashing.

Counter Ego Depletion

Say what now? 

Do you recognise that feeling you get after a long day full of draining meetings? That’s depletion. 

Effort, whether cognitive, emotional or physical draws at least in part from the same pool of energy. Which is finite. So if you’ve had that draining day (emotionally, physically or cognitive), you will be depleted and less willing and able to maintain self-control. You will be way more likely to rely on your System 1 and make more biased decisions. 

This also explains why the smallest problems sometimes feel like monstrous challenges, by the way. If they arise after numerous days or weeks that required above normal levels of energy, you’re already depleted. 

Lesson learned: If you need to make an ‘important decision’, make sure you’re not mentally depleted. So don’t decide on high impact stuff after a long day of draining meetings. Or worse – during that draining meeting. 

Now what?

Ha. So it looks like I just did give you some advice on how to actively address your system 2. That is, I elaborated on ways to increase awareness around cognitive bias and how to overcome it when necessary. After all, in most situations, we can safely rely on these brilliant strategies we call heuristics. It’s just that in some cases, being aware of what’s going on in your brain, reflecting on your own and team behaviour, and judging less can help you make less biased decisions and improve outcomes. 

You see, this is very tough conversation to have in a few minutes. No one likes all this nuance. Especially when we’re just looking for a quick fix. Well, there isn’t. Sorry not sorry. 

That doesn’t make all of this less important though. So, if the Gods are willing and the creeks don’t rise (thanks Maureen, for you legacy), I will continue my quest on socio-technical complexity and how to tackle it.

Nuanced and all. 


Last December, my colleague Kenny and I talked about this at FlowCon in Paris. Curious? The recording is available! 

I am a specialist at Qxperts. We empower companies to deliver reliable & high-quality software. Any questions? We are here to help!


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