Dual Process Theory & Habit
In his famous book Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman outlines how our brains engage in two distinct processes when it comes to decision-making. System 1 thinking refers to our automatic behaviour, like recalling the answer to 2+2 or dialling a phone number you know by heart. This requires little to no activation energy, because it’s automatic. On the other hand, System 2 thinking refers to our more deliberate thinking, like when learning something new for the first time or solving a complex problem.5
Neuroscientists have shown how different parts of our brain are used when we engage in System 1 versus System 2 thinking. In fMRI scans, neuroscientists observe increased activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain when engaging in deliberate, complex thinking. By contrast, more activity is detected in the basal ganglia when people perform automatic, ‘easy’ tasks which require less activation energy.4 These findings are important for a variety of reasons, but especially for research related to habit formulation and maintenance, More and more, research is showing that in order to make habits ‘stick,’ we need to make them automatic and easy. Therefore, by reducing the activation energy involved in a task, we allow this task to be part of our system 1 thinking, and it therefore requires much less energy to sustain it as a habit.
Defaults & Energy Consumption
As previously highlighted, the default is the option that requires zero activation energy from the decision-maker. Due to our human preference for inaction, illustrated by the status quo bias, defaults are commonly deployed to encourage us to behave in a particular way.
In 2006, McCalley6 conducted an experiment which tested various interventions aimed at encouraging people to reduce their household energy consumption. In one version of the study, two groups of participants were given a washing machine: one group of participants had the temperature on the machine set to zero, while another had it set to 95 degrees, a common default temperature in North American washing machines. Those who had their washing machines set to zero, had to engage in some effort by switching the dial to their desired temperature, usually around 60-/70 degrees. It was hypothesized that because changing the given temperature setting involved effort on the part of the individual, most people would just run their laundry at the pre-set level of 95 degrees, therefore using more energy than necessary to heat the water. The study’s hypothesis was confirmed, showing the influence that a non-desirable default can have on behavior. The group that received the high default temperature setting used an average of 89 kWh per wash, whereas the group receiving the zero setting averaged 68 kWh per wash. Setting the default to a high temperature meant that no activation energy was required to run a ‘hot’ wash, therefore this was the option most people absentmindedly chose, resulting in higher energy costs. Evidently, if we want people to run their washing machines at a lower temperature, therefore wasting less energy and costing less money, we should use lower temperatures as the default. However, that might not be in the best interests of our energy suppliers!