Emotion, Cognition, and Action: A Primal Do Loop
Now is a good time to review the basics of human intelligence, one of the most important concepts we can understand. As Daniel Kahneman relates in his excellent Thinking Fast and Slow, 2013, modern behavioral sciences tell us we use two competing kinds of intelligence for navigating the world. What he calls System 1 is our fast, intuitive, parallel, and emotional way of perceiving and deciding, based largely on our instinct and emotional unconsciously stored past experiences that are rapidly available to memory. System 2 is slow, deliberative, serial, and logical, based on our conscious appraisal of current events, and our stored episodic long-term memories, which are slowly available to memory. In shorthand, Kahneman calls these our intuitive and deliberative intelligences.
System 1 is a lot older and much more primitive. Many animals have emotion but little cognition. System 2 is evolutionarily newer, especially with regard to what we call our executive functions, which reside in our prefrontal cortex and related areas, and involve stored models of ourselves and others, and circuits that help us decide what we will do next.
Humans and other higher animals often turn to System 1 when we are in conditions of threat, stress, and uncertainty. But in a complex, changing world, rather than making fast gut decisions based on instinctual, subconscious, or emotional experiences and mental models, it often pays to slow our thinking and responses down enough to use System 2. “Slowing down enough to think” (use System 2) in times of stress or distraction can be one of our greatest foresight challenges.
The emotional aspects of System 1, may happen as an immediate result of our unconscious intuition, or they may happen in parallel with it. Either way, it is isn’t too valuable, for our purposes, to separate out intuition and emotion, so it is a useful shorthand to call System 1 our emotional system. Likewise, while the term cognition covers both intuitive and deliberate forms of thought (Systems 1 and 2), in common language, we think of cognition as the slower, more conscious form of thought, so it makes sense to call System 2 our cognitive system.
Commonly then, the use of Systems 1 and 2 to generate action can be called the ECA (Emotion-Cognition-Action) cycle. Pop psychologists used to refer to emotion and cognition as “right brain” and “left brain” ways of thinking, but today we know both our intuitive and our deliberate systems operate on both sides of the brain, using different neural pathways (picture right). Lateralization of brain function does happen, but it is a far more complex story. For example, we see some lateralization of consciousness, as our left parietal lobe is active when we visualize things in the first person, and our right when we visualize in the third person, standing outside and above ourselves.
It may be accurate to think of Systems 1 and 2 as competing cycles, intuition-emotion-action and deliberation-cognition-action, that compete for dominance in our minds depending on context. But we also can think of them as one composite cycle, as both are ultimately integrated into action. In other words, we both intuit-feel and we think-deliberate our way to the future, then we take action, we review that action, and we start over, feeling and thinking some more. Working together, we can think of both of these cycles as a primal Do loop. They are how we navigated the world for millennia, before we had things like complex language, science and technology. Modern humans use our intuitive-emotional and cognitive intelligences, in combination with our external intelligences, to be discussed shortly, to generate adaptive action.
The ECA cycle reminds us that thinking of our and others emotional status and communications first, especially when dealing with any kind of stressful or difficult issues, then our cognitive status and signals second, once we give ourselves time to slow down and reflect, will go a long way to improving our and others’ actions. Common emotional mistakes include being ruled by our fears instead of our passions, not communicating or being open as a result, and making too-quick judgments. Common cognition mistakes include not knowing and correcting for our biases, not valuing cognitive diversity, not developing good goals, not prioritizing our actions, and not using good cognitive process, like the Eight Skills.
We will use the compound phrase “emotional-cognitive” in several sections of this chapter, to indicate we are talking about the ECA cycle. Both System 1 and System 2 together are always influencing our action. As Kahneman would argue, there’s great value in thinking “emotions first,” about our issues, and tuning into all the emotions in the room, then giving ourselves and others sufficient time and resources for a more deliberate and rational response.
In Chapter 4 (Models), we will introduce the Perception Decision Action (PDA) cycle commonly discussed in cognitive science and ecological psychology as a foundation of the Do loop and the Eight Skills of strategic foresight. The PDA cycle argues that perceiving, deciding, and acting are the basic way we navigate the world, and it helps us realize that what we “see”, or fail to see, due to our biases and shortcomings, influences how we “decide”. When we recognize that perceiving and deciding are done with both our emotion and our cognition, we see the PDA cycle is just another version of the ECA cycle. They are two different windows to the same process – human intelligence.