Thinking, fast and slow: the power of the mind to improve health

December 4, 2012

Joe McWilliams

In our always-connected, quick-thinking society, we are wired, and often required, to make rapid, intuitive decisions. What should I buy at the grocery store for dinner? Should I vote for that political candidate? We are prone to decision-making based largely on automatic and effortless mental responses. While we believe that we are creatures of our thinking selves "“ that we utilize our conscious, thinking mind as the principal actor who reasonably evaluates situations and makes purposeful choices "“ many of our opinions merely ratify these rapid, automatic responses.

In Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow, economist Kahneman divides the mind into two broad components. "System 1" makes automatic, intuitive, emotional decisions based on associative memory, vivid images, and emotional reactions. "System 2" monitors the output of System 1 and sometimes overrides it when the result conflicts with logic, probability, or other decision-making rules.

For some decisions, System 1 can be great. For others, particularly those with health consequences, System 2 is critical. This system is capable of taking long-term views and challenging and reprogramming the habits, intuitions, impulses, and emotions inherent in System 1. At our core, we all possess slow and reflexive thinking systems. However, triggering the slow-thinking system is challenging, and such effort consumes time and energy. Yet this is what's needed to re-wire our relationship with our health. We must make a special effort to pay attention.

In contrast to Malcolm Gladwell, Kahneman is telling us not to blink. This is particularly impactful in the area of healthcare. We must reprogram our biases and bad habits and harness our active consciousness to make better decisions.

Fortunately, many of these better decisions can eventually become automatic, intuitive, and routine, but doing so requires help from new kinds of technologies and services (e.g., companies can provide text message reminders to plant healthy messages in our minds, educate us with mobile apps and self-help tools, or monitor our vital signs and coach us on ways to make better healthcare decisions).

It's time to disengage from our frequent reliance on System 1 thinking when it comes to our health. While triggering the slow-thinking system is tricky, this is what's needed to re-wire our relationship with our health across a myriad of issues "“ from what we eat and how often we exercise to the countless other decisions we make every day. Doing so will lead to less chronic disease, more active and empowered individuals, and lower healthcare costs.

When it comes to improving the system, how we make decisions can be as important as the decisions we make. It's time to more aggressively apply these new insights to real programs that make a difference for people across this country.

Just think about it.

Joe McWilliams is a healthcare strategy consultant and committed supporter of a smarter, more efficient healthcare system. He currently works in strategy and marketing at Philips Healthcare, where he is focused on the identification and development of new business models for next-generation healthcare applications. Prior to Philips, Joe worked at Scientia Advisors, a healthcare strategy consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. He has also worked as a consultant at Accenture and in business development and licensing at Partners Healthcare Research Ventures and Licensing, the technology transfer arm of Partners Healthcare responsible for investing in novel technologies from Massachusetts General Hospital.

Originally published Dec 4, 2012 10:00:15 AM.