On Kahneman’s Two Systems and the Acquisition of Skill

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Last time I wrote about this, I gave an overview of the Daniel Kahneman’s model of two types of thinking we use, their functions, and their relationship. Today I want to mull over the implications of this for teaching and learning.

The ultimate goal of skill acquisition is to get System 1 doing all your routine operations. You want to be able to do your thing fluently, automatically, with ease and pleasure. It’s not just that it feels good to work in this mode, it’s that complex tasks need so many decisions to be coordinated that even if you had the cognitive resources to make them all in real time, it would be too slow to work properly. This is how it feels performing on a bad day when your inner voice is hectoring you: you react too late, and then you over-react.

Ah, I’ve just found a resonance with the Inner Game Principles I hadn’t been looking for. In a confusing bit of arbitrary numbering, Kahneman’s System 2 seems to line up with Green and Galwey’s Self 1 - the inner critic whose running commentary gets in the way of the practised skills embedded in the competent and relaxed Self 2, which is based in Kahneman’s System 1. This will be useful, despite the numbering tangles.

Of course, once you have done the extended, deep practising, all 10,000 hours of it that’s usually reckoned the threshold for mastery, people will look at the ease with which you deploy your skills and remark on the wonder of your ‘natural talent’. Deep sigh.

The problem is this: System 1 is also the biggest obstacle to getting better at your thing. We pick up ways of being and of doing things from our habitus, from our immersion in a world with other people in it, and repetition - both observed and experienced - automates those habits. If you come from a family of top-class sportspeople, therefore, the ways of being you imbibe through childhood will give you an automatic advantage over someone from a family of couch potatoes who also wants to represent their country at your sport. Equally, if you come from a family of splashy and heavy-handed pianists, your teacher is going to have their work cut out to get you playing Mozart convincingly.

So, the process of skill acquisition is a balance between letting System 2 in on the act to analyse and adjust what you’re doing, and letting System 1 take over to automate it. Or possibly balance isn’t the word, maybe alternation is more the issue. As I reflected some years ago, unpicking and polishing are different phases of the practice process that you need at different points relative to your performance schedule.

The question is, of course, given that System 1 will just leap into action before System has a chance to draw breath, how do you activate the interventions needed?

Different teaching methods have answered that question in what are on the surface different ways, but basically share this underlying dynamic. The Inner Game principle of Awareness is designed to open up the perception of what could be changed, whilst Will is about asserting control over specified elements of technique. Trust, meanwhile gives you a way to get these System 2 processes out of the way when you no longer want them on duty.

Alexander Technique, meanwhile, could be described as an endeavour to retrain System 1 through the systematic application of System 2. Its central concept of ‘Inhibition’ is the capacity to halt automated habitual responses for just long enough to make a conscious choice about how to do something. In many ways, the value of studying AT comes not just from the improved coordination of self it offers, but from the regular practice it gives you at redirecting habitual reactions. Like all skills, this one gets better with practice. (Though there is some kind of inherent tension in appealing to a System 1 feature of fluency to appeal to the application of System 2 inhibition.)

But System 2 changes rely on a sense of reflection, of stepping aside from oneself long enough to observe and analyse what that self is doing, or how it is doing it. This in the first instance is the teacher’s role, to guide and give feedback: do it like this, not like that, can you see the difference? To become successful at something, we need to learn how to monitor ourselves for the salient features our teachers identify, and, as we mature as practitioners, to identify new things that need adjusting.

But I don’t think we ever really lose that need for external input, if only as a reality-check. You can probably tell which aspects of your life are the ones in which you are still growing by noticing which areas you actively seek out others’ views. It may not be as formal as an ongoing coaching relationship (though that is certainly a symptom of seriousness of purpose), but if you never feel the need to run something past someone whose opinion you value, you’re probably quite happy with your current level, wherever that lies.

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