Imagine you are quickly driving down an empty highway. After a long trip, you are feeling a little groggy and your mind has started to wander off into your dinner plans. Feeling a rumble in your stomach, you decide to slide into the fast lane to get yourself home sooner. Out of the corner of your eye, you spot a large billboard with a close-up of a juicy burger: “Hungry? Visit Burger King at your next exit!”. You speed by the billboard, considering whether or not you’ll take that next exit to get yourself a cheeseburger. While you may not have noticed it, almost everything you did on that highway was a result of automatic thinking.
Automatic thinking is the unconscious, effortless, cognitive process that we use when we need a quick solution to a problem. In our example, you didn’t set out to actively read the billboard, but you still understood the message. Without knowing it, your brain automatically read the content, processed it, and contemplated the possibility of buying a burger. Do you ever feel like you’re running on autopilot? You’re likely experiencing automatic thinking.
While a subconscious process, automatic thinking is responsible for a variety of behaviors, including our automatic motor skills, implicit biases, rapid problem-solving, and ‘gut feelings’. In popular literature, automatic thinking is sometimes referred to as “System 1” or “System 1 thinking”. This is because automatic thinking contrasts and intermingles with our second system of thinking, which uses a more controlled, explicit, and methodical process to solve problems. “System 2 thinking” requires active focus and can easily be disrupted when we get distracted. We use this second system, called controlled thinking, to solve math problems, parallel park a car, or memorize a phone number.