System 1 and System 2 Thinking:

The Elephant and the Rider

Have you ever found yourself making a quick decision that seemed almost automatic? This is an example of System 1 thinking, which contrasts with the more deliberate and logical System 2 thinking.

‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ represent our two ways of thinking about things. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and sometimes impulsive. We use it when we respond to familiar stimuli and situations- like riding a bike or tying shoelaces.  System 2 is slower and requires more effort and logic. We use System 2 when navigating complex or unknown situations- like looking for a friend in the crowd or parking in a tight space.  

Commuting to work, you instinctively know the route- the time it takes to get from point A to B, and what turns to make along the way. This is an example of System 1 thinking. However, if you’re hit with unexpected traffic or road closures, you’ll have to use System 2 to reach your destination.

The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.

The Elephant and the Rider Metaphor: Understanding System 1 and System 2 Thinking

The Elephant and the Rider is a helpful metaphor for understanding how to effectively use our “two brains” while looking for meaningful employment. 

The elephant represents System 1 thinking. It’s emotional, intuitive and its primary focus is survival. The rider represents our System 2. It’s rational and excels at planning, problem-solving and decision-making.  

The rider’s specialty is solving complex problems, while the elephant excels at solving familiar problems. The elephant only listens to the rider when it’s calm. If the rider tries to direct the elephant along a new path, it won’t willingly follow. 

System 1 and 2 - Considerations for Job Seekers

Like the elephant, we tend to prefer safe and familiar approaches to the job search. For example, endlessly scrolling through job postings, instead of reaching out to our connections, researching roles and companies, or setting up informational interviews. Playing games on our phones, and killing time on social media are also examples of System 1 thinking.

Crafting Your Approach with Systems 1 and 2

How do we overcome these behaviours?  There are three main methods: ‘Advise the Rider’, ‘Steer the Elephant’ and ‘Shape the Path.’ 

Advise the Rider

Understand what’s working for you, and replicate it. 

Instead of solely focusing on your goal of employment, think of the smaller goals you need to achieve to get that result.

Identify the reasons you’re looking for work. Do you want more financial security? Opportunities for personal growth? Better work/life balance? 

Steer the Elephant

If you’re looking for more financial stability, imagine how you’ll feel once that’s secured. Use these emotions as motivation.

If you accept that finding a job doesn’t require drastic change, you’ll be more likely to get things done. You can make the search less daunting by focusing on the smaller goals you’ve set.

Connect with your community or support network. Constructive emotional support is essential to success.

Shape the Path

Environment matters. If your environment doesn’t encourage productive behaviour- reflect and adapt it where you can. Small changes in your surrounding can make it easier to choose the right behaviours by eliminating distractions or barriers.

We associate different settings with specific actions. Our beds are for sleeping, our kitchens are for eating, and our living rooms are for unwinding. Job searching should have its own space- otherwise, you might find yourself falling asleep when you try to work in bed. Dedicating a specific space to job searching prompts your brain to create a mental shortcut that’ll bump your productivity.

A proven method, backed by research, is to create a plan for when and where you’ll engage in your job search. Complete the following sentence, “This week, I’ll spend at least ___ minutes completing (task) on (day) at (time) in (place).” For example: 

This week, I'll spend at least 60 minutes researching my top 5 target companies on Thursday at 9:00 AM in Analog Coffee on 17th Ave.

By pre-deciding on behalf of your future self, you make it easier for your elephant to follow that path on Thursday morning.

In our next blog, we’ll discuss the Intention Action Gap- which describes the disconnect between our intentions and actions. We’ll also cover the power of “if-then” planning.

Final Thoughts

System 1 and 2 thinking can help us demystify many aspects of the job search. If we’re inexperienced in tasks like looking for work, networking, and interviewing- our System 1’s mental shortcuts can lead us down the wrong path. However, if we have experience in job searching, our existing skillset can be incredibly beneficial as we navigate these familiar processes.

Understanding the benefits and strengths of both systems can help you make a practical plan for your job search. Replicate the behaviours that work for you, and think about new approaches to integrate into your search. Staying in control of your job search means using your intuition where it makes sense and practicing flexibility in uncertainty.

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