Magda Osman, Ph.D.


Fast or Slow: Are We Suffering From Two-Mind Syndrome?

What is the cure?

Posted Nov 29, 2018

So much of the way we describe, on a day to day level, how we think and act is along the lines of dichotomies, such as, 'I used my heart instead of my head' or 'I was using my right brain rather than my left brain'. These are easy and tangible ways of explaining to ourselves the kinds of experiences that we have, which often times really do seem like our thinking is either fast or slow.

In short, we live in duality in which there are constant conflicts between emotions and cognition, or heuristic thinking and analytic thinking, or gut and brain, or feelings and logic, or intuition and deliberation…and so the list goes on.

If we look to popular psychology books, then we can easily find support for our general beliefs that there is a duality of the mind. More to the point, this simple characterisation that half of our mind is automatic and the other half is deliberate is useful in explaining away daily experience such as why it is that we can drive our car while making a call on our phone (which is, in fact, illegal), and why it is that we can walk down a flight of stairs while at the same time reading a text.  Our belief is that some things can be done automatically, in other words without conscious attention and conscious control (e.g., driving a car, walking down the stairs), which allows us to direct our conscious mind towards activities that require deliberate and focused attention (e.g. making a call, responding to a text).

Of course, the virtue of science is that we can put these sorts of ideas to the test. So, we have empirical tests which set up dual-tasks, that is participants are required to perform a highly practiced behavior (e.g., walking around a short route, or driving a car (in a simulator) along a highly practiced route) while at the same time performing a cognitively taxing task (e.g., conversations on the phone (e.g., Strayer et al, 2001), texting (e.g., Haga et al, 2015). The findings from these and vast swaths of other studies tend to converge on the same outcome. No matter how automatic we think our highly practiced behaviors are—meaning that we can execute them without dedicating any conscious control or attention towards them, and more importantly, that we can also carry them out as well as another cognitively demanding task we performing at the same time—the evidence doesn’t bear out. Even a highly practiced behavior such as walking still requires some (albeit minimal) conscious attention to be performed well, and doing something cognitively engaging at the same time comes at a cost.

Put simply, there is a reason why we get fined for using our mobile phones while we are driving because if we do, we are significantly more likely to crash our car. 

Follow the links for the worrying related statistics on this: 

100 Distracted Driving Facts and Statistics

Two-thirds of drivers 'unaware of mobile penalties'

These are illustrations of a general point I have made in earlier published work (Osman, 2014 – Chapter 1, Future-minded; Osman, 2018) and in a recent interview for the New Scientist. Our folk psychological understanding of how our mind works is often that our mind is divided in two (automatic [system 1] vs. conscious [system 2]), and that they can often operate in parallel. More to the point, we attribute a whole load of properties to the automatic mind (e.g. emotions, guts, intuition, the unconscious, right brain, biased, heuristic) and to the conscious mind (e.g., logic, analytic, deliberate, conscious), which paints our mind as a battleground of opposing characters that rarely, if ever, get on.  

Many researchers have generated high profile work suggesting the same thing, which I have called the ‘Two-mind syndrome’ (Osman, 2018). The problem is that while this idea of the mind is highly attractive, and seems a convenient way of explaining how the mind works, we have reached a point in psychological research where there are significant empirical and theoretical challenges to this conception of the mind. For instance, Dual-mind theorists don’t all think the same on the way they carve up the distinctions between system 1 and system 2, and if one logically follows the claims, they can even seem contradictory (See Chapter 1, Future-minded: The Psychology of Agency and Control). But, even if one didn’t care about the nuanced and particular issues that academics fight over when they theorize, the evidence is perhaps more compelling, and when it comes to practical day to day matters, having an inaccurate belief of the mind can be highly costly.


Haga, S., Sano, A., Sekine, Y., Sato, H., Yamaguchi, S., & Masuda, K. (2015). Effects of using a smart phone on pedestrians’ attention and walking. Procedia Manufacturing, 3, 2574-2580.

Osman, M. (2014). Chapter 1 'Agency and Control - Psychological tools for making the future' In Future-minded: The psychology of agency and control. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Osman, M. (2018). Persistent Maladies: The Case of Two-Mind Syndrome. Trends in cognitive sciences, 22(4), 276-277.

Strayer, D. L., & Johnston, W. A. (2001). Driven to distraction: Dual-task studies of simulated driving and conversing on a cellular telephone. Psychological science, 12(6), 462-466.’ve%20got%20thinking%20all%20wrong%20This%20is%20how%20your%20mind%20really%20works.pdf

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