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Two modes of thinking: OS vs ES

Updated: Aug 11, 2022


If you've worked with me then we have had a discussion about thinking; specifically about two modes of thinking - the OS (Operating Self) vs the ES (Empowered Self). This concept has been explained in different ways by different people: fast and slow thinking (Daniel Kahneman), the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain (Daniel J Seigel), the high road and the low road, or growth vs fixed mindset. No matter what you call it the idea is that our brains have two primary systems of thinking.


Why should you care?


In the words of Albert Einstein, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."


So, let's dig a little deeper...


The first system (the OS, fast thinking, downstairs brain, low road, fixed mindset) is fast and effortless. It relies on emotion, intuition, and learned activities that have become automatic. This is the system you use when driving (after you learn), when recognizing facial expressions, and when responding to events that are very familiar. The second system (the ES, slow thinking, upstairs brain, high road, growth mindset) is the system we use when solving complex problems, incorporating new information, reasoning, focusing, or concentrating. It is the system we want to use when we need to consider all of the information available and avoid jumping to conclusions. The primary purpose of the OS is to conserve energy and keep you safe. The primary purpose of the ES is to generate new thought, expand knowledge, and develop new ways of being. They're both important to our ability to survive and thrive, however they are sometimes at odds with one another. Your OS relies on a set of assumptions and beliefs that may or may not be accurate. Evaluating those beliefs is the job of the ES and this requires effort. Both systems can be prone to error.


Benefits of the OS:

  1. It's fast and efficient. We operate in the OS without even really thinking. It is excellent for taking care of mundane or repetitive tasks. It just happens and you don't even notice it. Sometimes referred to as lazy thinking, I like to think of it as efficient thinking. It saves your energy for other tasks. Think about a time when you've been driving down the road and gotten completely lost in thought, so much so that you really didn't notice where you were driving? That's your OS at work, taking care of the mundane (driving) so that you can concentrate on other things (whatever it was you were thinking about.) If you need to make fast decisions in a familiar environment the OS has got your back. And suppose you find yourself driving in traffic in the rain? This requires more concentration. Your ES kicks in and supports the effort while your OS is still working the brakes and gas. Split second decisions? Like hit the deer or swerve and possibly hit a car? Because that has to happen so fast, your OS takes the wheel again.

  2. It's often right. The solutions the OS provides are "tried and true," they've worked in the past and will likely work in the future. It also relies heavily on our "gut instincts." We know that often times when faced with making a decision we are told to "go with your gut" and that's because your gut is very closely linked to you desires. When you're dealing with familiar problems the OS can jump in and take care of them quickly.

Drawbacks of the OS:

  1. It readily discards "irrelevant" information. The limbic system in your brain is the main driver of the OS. One of the functions of the caudate, a part of the limbic system, is to disregard irrelevant information. This is great if the information is truly irrelevant. But if the information is simply new and we haven't attached it to anything else yet, then it may only seem irrelevant and turn out to be quite relevant, or even game changing. If the new information is contrary to your current opinions, then your OS might choose to disregard it as irrelevant because it does not align with current beliefs. I think of the old saying, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In that sense, your OS is kind of like a hammer.

  2. It is biased. In his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" Daniel Kanheman lists no less than 48 separate heuristics that help to guide your OS in its view of the world, or right and wrong, and in decision making. These include things like "the Halo effect", "cognitive bias", "confirmation bias", and "coherent stories" to name a few. (Read the full book for the full story, or here is a link to an excellent summary by Erik Johnson.) Are these heuristics good or bad? They're neither good nor bad, they simply allow your brain to trade accuracy for efficiency.

  3. It has a hard time releasing old behaviors that no longer support us. When you find yourself asking, "Why do I always find myself in this position?" Whether that be selecting the wrong partner, choosing the wrong job, engaging in addictive behaviors, issues with family relationships or friendships, or whatever "trap" you might find yourself in it is your OS that keeps putting you there. Keep in mind that the primary goal of the OS is to keep you safe, seek pleasure, and avoid pain. Throughout a lifetime you have likely developed various coping mechanisms that were initially successful. Many of these coping mechanisms were probably developed in childhood when you had fewer choices or resources to work with. They initially worked so you stuck with them. You stuck with them and they became learned, once they became well learned they became habits, then they became automatic. Additionally, the root cause of the behavior in all likelihood has an emotional component to it, and emotions make your OS kick into high gear. Even if they no longer serve you or if you now have more choices, these behaviors are still your "go to" and they are so automatic that you probably don't even know its happening.

So what?


When you're trying to make a change in your life, the OS can hold you back. If you can recognize when your OS is in control of your decision making, you can help reverse the pattern. Keep in mind that no matter how bad things may turn out due to OS coping mechanisms, at its root the intentions of the OS are good. If you can identify the root cause of the OS behavior - the thing that it is trying to accomplish for you, then you can work to meet that need in another way. When the need is met, then your OS can back off.


Working with a coach can help you uncover what your OS is trying to accomplish for you. A coach can also help you determine what you really want out of life. Then you can develop a plan to meet all of your needs, address your desires, and start to live the life you want.


✌️ ❤️ 🐴

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