Dual Process Theory: Analyzing Our Thought Process for Decision-Making

Dual Process Theory: Analyzing Our Thought Process for Decision-Making

Designing your website requires a studied understanding of human behavior if you want to increase your conversions. Using psychological tactics, such as the dual process theory, in your design to appeal to potential customers can help do this, but you must first know how users’ decisions are made.

Daniel Kahneman presents two thought systems that can give marketers a framework for how to target their ideal clients through site design and get a major uplift in conversions.

What is the dual process theory?

The dual process theory explains that our reasoning and decision-making arise from two different thought processes (or two different systems): an automatic, unconscious process, and an explicit, conscious process.

What are Kahneman’s two systems of thought?

Economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow, in which he discusses two ways our brain operates – known as System 1 and System 2.

System 1 and System 2 encompass two different thought processes that people go through when making decisions, a theory known as “dual processing.”

The distinction: System 1 is a person’s emotional, automatic reaction to information, and System 2 is a more tempered, controlled thought process that’s based on evaluation.

System 1

System 1 functions on mental shortcuts, which are also known as heuristics. These are formulaic response patterns the brain has developed previously, and this system of thinking is responsible for immediate problem-solving, snap decisions, subconscious reactions, etc.

Or, as Jim Holt writes for The New York Times:

“System 1 uses association and metaphor to produce a quick and dirty draft of reality, which System 2 draws on to arrive at explicit beliefs and reasoned choices. System 1 proposes, System 2 disposes.”

Kahneman himself offers some examples:

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
In rough order of complexity, here are some examples of the automatic activities that are attributed to System 1:

  • Detect that one object is more distant than another.
  • Orient to the source of a sudden sound.
  • Complete the phrase “bread and . . .”
  • Make a “disgust face” when shown a horrible picture.
  • Detect hostility in a voice.
  • Answer to 2 + 2 = ?
  • Read words on large billboards.
  • Drive a car on an empty road.
  • Find a strong move in chess (if you are a chess master).
  • Understand simple sentences.
  • Recognize that a “meek and tidy soul with a passion for detail” resembles an occupational stereotype.

System 2

System 2 is a far slower process that engages conscious reflection and can evaluate System 1 conclusions for error. System 2 is used for more complicated and focused tasks.
So, when do you use system 2 to make decisions? Kahneman provides more examples.


Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away. Here are some examples:

  • Brace for the starter gun in a race.
  • Focus attention on the clowns in the circus.
  • Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room.
  • Look for a woman with white hair.
  • Search memory to identify a surprising sound.
  • Maintain a faster walking speed than is natural for you.
  • Monitor the appropriateness of your behavior in a social situation.
  • Count the occurrences of the letter a in a page of text.
  • Tell someone your phone number.
  • Park in a narrow space (for most people except garage attendants).
  • Compare two washing machines for overall value.
  • Fill out a tax form.
  • Check the validity of a complex logical argument.” (via Scientific American)

These two systems interconnect. For example, economist and Nobel laureate Professor Richard Thaler tested how each system operates by asking people to save money in the future as opposed to in the present moment.

When asked to save money in the future, people made more reasoned economic decisions because System 2 thinking regulates future planning, as opposed to System 1 thinking, which operates mostly within the present.

Examples of dual process theory in web design

Talia Wolf offers some insight on getting into a client’s head and directing their emotional path through a website.

Talia Wolf, GetUplift.co

“ […] First, we grab her attention, show her we’re here to solve her pain (system 1) and then dive deeper into the details, data and information she needs to make an informed decision (system 2). One cannot work without the other.

When optimizing a website we do extensive research to better understand the customer’s emotional drivers, why they buy from our client, the information they need in order to make a decision and what they need to feel.

It is always a balance between immediately capturing her attention with emotional triggers (using color psychology, cognitive biases, persuasive design etc.) using system 1 and supplying the information that will strengthen her decision, make her feel confident and comfortable with the decision she made earlier on using system 2.”

Psychologist Bart Schutz agrees that designing for users without taking into account these two systems is like “shooting blind and trying to hit a target,” as experiments show people in a system 1 states of mind respond the opposite way from people in the system 2 state of mind.

Bart Schutz, Wheel of Persuasion

“[For example,] we have a client called HostelWorld that is a hostel room booking app. HostelWorld receives both ‘intuitively clicking’ system 1 thinkers and ‘goal-directed’ system 2 thinkers. Persuading system 1 thinkers is all about creating an experience and applying heuristics.

Large images and testimonials boost conversions. Yet persuading system 2 thinkers works exactly opposite: conversion rates among this group are higher when images and testimonials are left out, since system 2 thinkers need focus and attention (and image/testimonials only distract them).”

Roger Dooley cautions against introducing too much System 2 thinking:

Roger Dooley, Neuromarketing

“Most marketers need to appeal to both System 1 and 2 thinking. There are some exceptions – a fragrance ad may feature nothing more than an evocative photo and a logo or, perhaps, an image of the bottle. That’s pure System 1.

But most sellers of products and services have to provide enough information so that visitor can determine whether what is being sold will work.

The error that most companies make on their websites is to focus too much on features, specifications, prices, and other details. This forces customers into System 2 thinking, which is usually less comfortable.”

How do you know which customers are operating in which system?

At first, you don’t. That’s why you need to track your customer data and identify leading metric indicators for each thought system to segment your audience, as explained below by Schutz.

Bart Schutz, Wheel of Persuasion

“In terms of heuristics in web design, we first want to be sure that system 2 is not operating. It tends to be counterproductive when people are consciously in control. First, [you must] analyze which segments are dealing with which system.

In order to do that, you need to know the indicators for the customers operating in System 1 and System 2. Once you know the leading indicators, it’s easier to segment these two audiences and know which to market to.

A major leading indicator is when they access your service: the time of day and the day of the week. Monday morning users are more likely to be system 2 thinkers, whereas Friday afternoon users are more likely to be system 1 thinkers.

Additionally, customer journey and keyword searches. Does the customer follow the designated path exactly, or is their behavior more chaotic? Do they look for long-tail keywords?”

The trick is to identify leading indicators for System 1 users and System 2 users, then design your site appealing to each thought process.

System 1 and System 2 Website Design Examples

What are some websites that have used Kahneman’s two systems to design the sites and market their products? Dooley compares and contrasts several websites on their usage of Kahneman’s two-system principle.

“Compare these web pages from security system resellers.

Why do people shop for home security? They want peace of mind. They want family, pets, [and] possessions to be safe and secure.

The ADT reseller’s page (protectyourhome.com) is very feature-oriented. There are text blocks everywhere, and the illustration of the control unit looks complicated.

Nowhere does it address the emotions that the shopper is likely experiencing. The is primarily a System 2 appeal that might work with a highly analytical comparison shopper.

The Reliant (securitybyreliant.com) page, on the other hand, doesn’t show the equipment at all.

Instead, the main photo is of a carefree, happy family in front of their home. There’s very little text, and the text that is there is smart. It uses “FREE” multiple times (known to be a powerful non-conscious motivator, and it offers “same-day installation” – comforting if you’ve had a break-in attempt or there was an incident nearby.

This ad appeals to System 1 with the happy family photo but gives enough System 2 information to encourage a phone call.

The Vivint (vivint.com) page is even simpler.

The viewer is in a dark room looking out at a night street scene, and the text promises “smart” security that lets you “sleep easier.” This ad is primarily a System 1 appeal […]

None of these ads is necessarily the best it could be. For example, instead of the kitchen sink view in the Vivint ad I’d test a more emotionally evocative image, like a parent peeking in on a sleeping child.

The Reliant ad has conflicting calls to action – “call for quote” and, in another place, “see packages.” But, I think the Reliant ad is a good example of appealing to both System 1 and 2.

Many websites finesse the System 1 vs. [System] 2 problem by hiding most of the facts/features info behind a separate tab or by using a “more info” link. Those people who really want the details can get them, but others aren’t subjected to information overload.

Of course, testing is the best way to optimize page content and design.”

Is it possible to make a client’s thoughts switch between systems?

In essence, yes. Schutz says the goal is typically to keep a user within their mental system, but if you need them to switch thinking patterns, there are tactics to do so.

Bart Schutz, Wheel of Persuasion

“If a user is in system 1, you typically don’t want to wake system 2 up. Usually the goal is to keep them within their mental system […]

There’s several ways to change between thinking systems. When System 1 thinkers enter your website, but you want to get them into System 2 thinking, you want to spur their System 2 thinking by making them do something out of their normal range.

Whereas with System 2 thinkers, the trick is the overwhelm them with information by putting them in a paradox of choice, and often they’ll resort to System 1 thinking.

[For example,] when people are becoming a customer, you want them to become a loyal customer. You want to create a habit with System 1 thinking. You want them to consciously think about doing a new thing (ex. become a member) to make them go to System 1 thinking using micro-interactions and variable rewards.”

Kahneman’s systems and cognitive biases

Designing for these mental systems is helpful, but it’s important to remember neither system of thinking is always logical or error-proof.

Our brains can become lazy or too dependent on heuristics, and end up actually acting against their own best interests by developing a “cognitive bias.”

Courtesy of BetterHumans.com

As The Harvard Business Review puts it:
“System 1 is critical to survival. It’s what makes you swerve to avoid a car accident. But as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown, it’s also a common source of bias that can result in poor decision making, because our intuitions frequently lead us astray.

Other sources of bias involve flawed System 2 thinking—essentially, deliberate reasoning gone awry.

Cognitive limitations or laziness, for example, might cause people to focus intently on the wrong things or fail to seek out relevant information.”

This is because intuitive processing can actually be both logical and useful, though it’s often considered irrational, and the opposite is true of System 2. Though it is consistently the more thoughtful of the two modes, it, too, can sometimes deliver irrational results.

Kahneman argues, and he illustrates the contrarian nature of the human brain using the analogy of a piece of cake:

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

“It is now a well-established proposition that both self-control and cognitive effort are forms of mental work. Several psychological studies have shown that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation.

Imagine that you are asked to retain a list of seven digits for a minute or two. You are told that remembering the digits is your top priority.

While your atten­tion is focused on the digits, you are offered a choice between two desserts: a sinful chocolate cake and a virtuous fruit salad.

The evidence suggests that you would be more likely to select the tempting chocolate cake when your mind is loaded with digits. System 1 has more influence on behavior when System 2 is busy, and it has a sweet tooth.

People who are cognitively busy are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situ­ations.” (via Big Think)”

Let’s say you’ve resolved to lose weight, and most nights you eat well, work out, and go to sleep early. However, if you’ve had a stressful day at work and you arrive home late, that’s when you’re most likely to not work out and eat the chocolate cake due to your cognitive bias.

Cognitive biases often cause us to act against our own self-interests, and they can trip up how you design for system 1 and system 2 if you don’t account for them.

Should Kahneman’s principles always inform how we design web pages?

Ultimately, these principles are good guidelines, but not hard-and-fast rules, argues Brian Cugelman.

Brian Cugelman, AlterSpark

“[Kahneman’s] work will keep people focused on what matters, with plain language descriptions, but his system doesn’t offer the full range of validated behavior change techniques that you’ll find in the behavioral sciences [..]

So System 1 and 2 are broad generalizations of how the mind works, but if you were to dissect a brain, you wouldn’t find system per se. […]

Neuroscience offers a more detailed perspective on which faculties are involved in quick versus slower processing, with ties to the underlying biology, such as glucose consumption, schema processing, memory systems, learned behavior and emotional systems.”

Nir Eyal actually finds keeping cognitive biases in mind is more useful for design the System 1 and System 2 principles alone:

Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

“[…] I find the idea of designing for System 1 and System 2 is a little too obscure to be useful for most product teams. Instead, I prefer to put the science to use by considering how a heuristic (for example, loss aversion, anchoring, or authority bias, to name just a few) might improve the user experience.”

Ultimately, the extent to which your company utilizes these principles in your site design is up to you, but understanding human psychology is crucial to increasing your conversions.


Daniel Kahneman’s two-system principle is an important marketing and design guidepost and can help you get major lift for your website.

You can incorporate principles of the dual process theory in your web page design by:

  • Identifying leading indicators for customers each system.
  • Segmenting users into either system 1 or system 2 thinking.
  • Targeting you website design and marketing campaigns for thinkers in each system.

Pro tip: For System 1 thinkers, use large images, testimonials, and other details to boost conversions. For System 2 thinkers, use fewer images and information that distracts system 2 thinkers. Don’t forget to make allowances for common cognitive biases (like loss aversion, anchoring, etc.) with your web interface.

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Join the conversation Add your comment

  1. Great article Lindy, it was very helpful, thanks for the share.

    I want to ask you.

    Do you have any preference when it comes to the systems? Like which one you prefer more?

    Kind regards,

    1. Hi Filip!

      Thanks so much for that feedback!

      I admit that while I personally am not a web designer, I believe that designing for system 1 thinkers initially is best.

      However, based on the information above, I think providing obvious tabs/drop-down menus, etc., with information for system 2 thinkers is a good idea.

      To sum up: I personally do not have a favorite, but I do think leading with the simpler design and gradually introducing system 2 information would be best.

      So really, there is no “better system for design,” they’re just different based on your audience.


  2. Very interesting article! The dual process theory really helps streamline the designing process. Thanks! :)

    1. Hi Ida!

      Thanks so much for that! I’m glad to hear it helps you so much.

      Have a great day!

  3. Lindy, this is soo good. The amount of research you’ve done for publishing this article is just amazing.

    1. Hi Karan!

      Thanks so much for saying that! Research is a top concern over here at CXL, so I’m really glad you got something out of it.

      Thanks for your input and let me know if you end up using these systems in something you design.

      Take care!

  4. Interesting article and images are also good to understand what your content is all about. Really good work!!!



    1. Thank you so much, it’s always good to hear that you learned something off of our post!

  5. I must say one the best content oriented post I have ever read till date.
    Keep going!!!
    Big Love Big Support!!!


    1. Thanks so much for the input!

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Dual Process Theory: Analyzing Our Thought Process for Decision-Making