Rational vs Intuitive Systems: Which system are your customers using?

By Zhecho Dobrev

Rational vs Intuitive Systems: Which system are your customers using?

Think about the times you’ve been “of two minds” about something, whether it was about having a cake for dessert when you said to yourself that you’ll go on a diet or your gut was telling you not to trust that sales agent but the offer seemed of really good value? In all these cases our two minds are in conflict.

People have been talking about the two minds influencing their thoughts and behavior since at least the days of Aristotle. Most commonly, people talk about the heart and mind. In recent psychology and behavioral science literature, following the release of Daniel Kahneman’s infamous book “Thinking Fast & Slow”, the standard protocol for naming the two distinctive ways our brain has for thinking about things is System 1 (i.e. thinking fast) and System 2 (i.e. thinking slow). Since these are not exactly easy to remember for non-psychologists, fellow Nobel prize winner, Richard Thaller chose to call them the “Automatic System” and “Reflective System”, while my friends prof. Ryan Hamilton and Colin Shaw called them the “Intuitive System” and the “Rational System” in their latest book.

Have you ever thought about:

  • Which systems do your customers use to decide?
  • Which one do you want them to use?
  • And how do you appeal to the different systems?

We’ll answer these questions below. But first, what distinguishes System 1 (the Intuitive System) from System 2 (the Rational System) and how do they interact / conflict?

The Intuitive System

The Intuitive System is the one we use when we make quick, instant decisions and when we say my “gut/intuition tells me.” It is switched “on” all the time but the mental process is automatic and not under your conscious control. We do not have to “think” to make a decision, come up with an answer, or do something. The Intuitive System can be taught. Think about how you learned to type on a computer keyboard or drive. It took some time and lots of repetition but now it’s instinctive and you type superfast without even looking at the keys (most of the time anyway). However, I’m sure that if I ask you to recreate the keyboard on a blank piece of paper your conscious mind will struggle (there have actually been such tests among professional typewriters). The same is true about driving. You had to learn about keeping the car within the lanes, working with the pedals, shifting gears for those of us old enough to have driven manual cars, driving in reverse, parking, and so on. Now you don’t even need to think about these things. You do them all “on autopilot” (don’t mean the Tesla one) while thinking about work and everything else but driving.

Because the Intuitive System is fast, while thinking slows you down, in sports, many coaches are trying to get their teams and players to play a more intuitive and fast game through lots of exercises and repetition. This is implemented in football, basketball, soccer, and even in golf (where people are told “trust your instincts, don’t think too much”).

The Intuitive System is also the one responsible for recognizing emotions. Have a look at this picture.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

I’m sure that as soon as you saw the picture, you could recognize what the people in it are likely to feel. You did not have to “think” about it.

The Rational System

Now look at the following math problem:     237 × 53

Those of you who like challenges (and math) may take a stab at it, while others will simply save themselves the effort and cognitive depletion. Therein lies the main difference between the two systems. The Rational System is more deliberate and conscious; we use it to make complex calculations and decisions, to learn new things but using it for longer periods of time is exhaustive. In such situations, when we are cognitively depleted we are less likely to resist temptations coming from our Intuitive System. By the way, the answer to the above math problem is 12,561.

One of my favorite experiments that illustrate this was shared with me by professor Ryan Hamilton. Researchers asked a group of participants to memorize one of two numbers, telling them they’ll have to recite it later. Half the group had to memorize a two-digit number (a relatively easy task, requiring little cognitive effort), while the other half had to try and recall a seven-digit number (a more difficult task, requiring more cognitive resources). Then participants were offered the choice of two desserts: a healthy fruit salad option and a very tempting chocolate cake that doesn’t gel well with diets. Guess what! Simply giving people a longer number to remember significantly increased the preference for the cake: 63 percent of the participants in the seven-digit group chose the cake versus 41 percent in the two-digit group. That is because your Rational System has less energy to fight the impulses coming from your Intuitive System. No wonder you feel you deserve a drink after a hard day in the office or a treat on Friday evening.

This is a simple example of how the Rational and the Intuitive systems interact. The Rational System can approve the urges of the Intuitive System justifying that you indeed deserve a treat after a hard-working day or neglect to override the urges of the Intuitive System as in the experiment with the fruit salad and the cake. Override is another way the two systems interact. That happens when the Rational System overrides our intuitive response to things and replaces it with a response of its own. A fourth way the two systems interact is when the Intuitive System influences the Rational System. That happens when the Rational System rejects a suggestion from the Intuitive System but the seed is already planted and makes the Rational System more susceptible to approve the suggestion next time.

This shows the many ways the Intuitive System influences our decision making and behavior. One might be tempted to think that we should be striving to exercise more self-control and override the decisions coming from the Intuitive System. After all, the Intuitive System is emotional, perceptual, and automatic. However, this may not always lead to better decisions. In a series of experiments Ap Dijksterhuis, professor at Radboud University Nijmegen, named among the top 100 most influential Dutch people, along with colleagues, shows how in many instances unconscious thought, as he describes it, can lead to better decisions. What’s an unconscious thought process? You know how they tell you to postpone a decision and “sleep on it first.” Ap along with colleagues decided to test the scientific merits of this “folk belief.”

Which system is better at choosing a house or a car?       

In one experiment, they asked participants to choose between four hypothetical apartments. The experiment was such that one of the four apartments was objectively more desirable than the other but it wasn’t immediately obvious as the apartments were described with a great deal of information. Some of the participants had to make their decision immediately after reading all the information while the others did so after a period of distraction during which they did other things. The researcher’s hypothesis was that the group would continue to “unconsciously think” about the apartments. The results showed that indeed the “unconscious thinkers” did better with 60 percent of them choosing the right apartment versus just 37 percent of the immediate decision-makers. Their finding that unconscious thinkers outperform conscious thinkers and immediate decision-makers has been replicated in a number of other experiments in interesting domains including clinical diagnoses made by clinical psychology students and judgments of justices in hypothetical court cases. Ap gives two reasons why unconscious thought is so helpful. The first relates to the processing power of conscious and unconscious thought. “Consciousness works in a serial fashion and has a small capacity,” he says. That is, it can only do one thing at a time, and it can only work on a very limited amount of information. Unconscious processes have the capacity to work on different things in parallel and can integrate a large amount of information. The second reason the unconscious thought is helpful is that it seems to be better at weighing the relative importance of different attributes. It seems that when we sleep on things or during unconscious thought we can distinguish better the more important from less important aspects.

So how does all this relate to customer experience? Customers often have to make decisions that are based on a great deal of complex information. They take into account their existing experience with the organization, all the times they interacted with that organization (at least those that stuck in their memory), all the advertising and things they’ve seen in the media. In many instances, they also weigh in their product offering, the price, and so on versus that of competitors. That is a lot to take into account and there may be a lot of unconscious thought that goes on where many aspects would be influencing our “gut feel.” Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman says that 95 percent of our purchase decision-making happens in the subconscious mind. Our Intuitive System influences the Rational System and sends impulses to it, which the latter can approve, neglect to take corrective action or override. Customers may thus be unaware of the things that have the biggest influence on their attitudes and behavior toward organizations.

Now, back to our questions…

Which systems do your customers use to decide?

Do your customers choose based on price comparisons, without the interference of any brand halo effects? Do you appeal to them with facts and performance data stats? Do they have to consciously weigh in one advantage vs another disadvantage of your product? If the above is the case, then your customers might be relying solely on the Rational System to make a decision. But this is a dangerous situation.

Which one do you want them to use?

You should be striving to move people to or appeal to the Intuitive System as well. For once, as we’ve said, the Rational System takes a lot of cognitive resources and energy. And if it’s hard to decide, people might postpone making a decision … indefinitely and not buy your product or service.

When the decision seems intuitive and comes from “gut feel” then people don’t have to think hard about it and are much more likely to act.

However, there may be situations, where you need to convince the Rational System as well or if you want people to break out of the “status quo” or “default” decision or behavior, then attracting the attention of the Rational System may be the way to go.

And how do you appeal to the different systems?

Here are a couple of examples of appealing to the different systems. The first set are Listerine ads – one that can appeal to the Rational System with data and the second one is designed to appeal to the Intuitive System.

Imagine that you’re tasked with saving a billion-dollar industry facing a declining milk consumption. You could appeal to the Rational System by boasting the nutritional aspects of the milk or enlist celebrities to appeal to the Intuitive System. Which one would you choose? If you want to did deeper into this ad story, read why “Got Milk?” is one of the most successful advertising campaigns in American history.

Using celebrities is just one of the ways to appeal to the Intuitive System. That is about the messenger and the Authority principle.

There are many other ways to appeal to the Intuitive System including:

  • Motivating people to take action in order to avoid a loss
  • By creating urgency and a feeling of exclusivity
  • By prompting people to return favors to us
  • By using storytelling, which makes people come to conclusions by themselves … and it’s hard to argue with your own reasoning!
  • By showing people what the majority of others are doing
  • By harnessing the human need to feel in control
  • By the foot-through-the-door technique
  • By activating the sense of curiosity in people
  • By using clever choice architecture
  • By using the superpower of language
  • By affecting the perception of price

And many more. In follow-up blogs we’ll be talking about the various ways to increase the appeal of your message or product to customers. So follow us and watch this space so you don’t miss on insights that could increase sales and further your career.





Part of this blog is based on content first published in “The Big Miss: How Organizations Overlook the Value of Emotions” (Business Expert Press, 2022) by Zhecho Dobrev.