System 1, System 2, and the Nine Strategies: Blending Insights from Modern Cognitive Psychology with the Enneagram
Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” has helped popularize the idea that we have two general cognitive systems for processing information. Kahneman’s book is one of many popular volumes published in recent years that describe what we have learned from the cognitive sciences over the past few decades about the workings of the mind. These insights can provide very useful insights in how to use the Enneagram to create change.
System 1, as Kahneman describes, is fast, heuristic-based thinking. It relies on deeply rooted mental models that allow us to make quick decisions without having to think any more than absolutely necessary, if we think at all. The beauty of System 1 is that it is generally good enough to help us meet the basic demands of daily life without requiring us to expend too much energy. Unfortunately, it is not always accurate. While it is often very effective for solving short-term problems, it can cause us to act in ways that undermine us in the long run.
System 2 is slow, rational thinking. It is the conscious, deliberate weighing of variables and data and considering of long-term consequences. It is more accurate, but it also requires more caloric energy and is physically demanding, so we tend to minimize its use. (Ever notice how tired you are after a long period of concentrated thinking or attention? This is the result of System 2 causing the brain to burn a lot of energy.)
Broadly, the existence of these two systems means that we have access to two thinking modes that both serve a useful end, but we sometimes use one when we should use the other–with unfortunate results. For example, we may come to regret relying on System 2 slow thinking when we accidentally step out into traffic or relying on System 1 fast thinking when deciding to buy a used car.
Understanding that there are two systems and when we tend to use each can be a big help in our personal development. Our lives become more efficacious when we use each system appropriately, allowing ourselves to conserve energy and mental resources by delegating mundane activities to System 1 but using System 2 when a circumstance is more fluid or complex. In fact, with practice we can use System 2 to reconfigure certain heuristics in System 1 as more-effective habits. This is how we develop virtue–by consciously practicing virtuous behaviors until they become habit and we do them automatically.
Most of our habitual patterns are the result of processes created in System 1, and these include the habitual pattern related to our Ennea-type. Through repetition that starts very early in life, we develop reactions to the world that are based on one of nine adaptive strategies. The preferred strategy is, in a sense, one of System 1’s heuristics and we can end up using the strategy in effective ways or ineffective ways. The key to growth with this approach to the Enneagram is understanding when we are using the strategy ineffectively in System 1 and then deliberately using System 2 to help us either get rid of the maladaptive behavior or redefine the strategy in such a way that System 1 will use it effectively in the future.
There are some who would argue that we should strive for a state of constant awareness, which would mean living in a version of System 2 all the time. Modern cognitive science shows us why this aspiration is not realistic (and probably why no one can actually do it)–System 2 simply requires too much energy. Prolonged conscious awareness, to the extent that it is possible, is exhausting.
A more realistic approach is to apply the Awareness to Action Process to use System 2 to challenge the implicit assumptions of our preferred strategy, rewrite the strategy in a more-adaptive way, and then practice adaptive or virtuous behaviors aligned with the new mindset so it becomes a habitual part of our System 1 thinking.
For example, the adaptive strategy of Ennea-type Nine is “striving to feel peaceful.” Their System 1, habitual and heuristic-based thinking, causes them to avoid anything that seems like self-praise or high self-regard (such behaviors may potentially cause conflict if the egos of others feel threatened). They habitually self-deprecate–subtly put themselves down and deflect praise from others. While this often makes them seem like humble, likable people, it can hold them back professionally because people start to believe their self-deprecations are reality. Further, they become resentful when, as an outcome of this automatic behavior, they are not recognized for their contributions.
Nines need to step into System 2 and re-evaluate their implicit beliefs about what it means to feel “peaceful” and to realize that they can achieve more inner contentment by self-deprecating less often. With practice, System 1 adopts the new behavior and System 2 can focus on something else, if necessary, or just take a break.
Growth–whether it be personal, professional, or spiritual–does not require being fully aware all of the time, even if such a thing was possible. It requires being aware of the right things at the right time. It is based on having the skills to recognize when one needs to think, act, or feel differently than one is at the moment. It requires having the skills and willingness* to use System 2 slow thinking to challenge our assumptions and recognize when System 1 fast thinking fails us. It includes being able to switch from System 1 to System 2 at the appropriate times, and to develop virtuous or adaptive habits so we can allow both systems to do their job.
*Please note that I am not suggesting that mindfulness practices are not useful–they are. In fact, they can be some of the skills that allow us to effectively use System 2. We have to cultivate the ability to pay attention through whatever practices we find to be useful, but the expectation that we should be able to pay attention all the time is just not realistic.