Martial Arts, Fast and Slow: Applying Daniel Kahneman’s Psychology to Your Training

Martial Arts, Fast and Slow: Applying Daniel Kahneman’s Psychology to Your Training

Daniel Kahneman's work on how we think directly affects how we train as martial artists. More importantly, it helps us to just get better at everyday life.
Daniel Kahneman, courtesy of Wikipedia


Daniel Kahneman died on March 27, 2024. For anyone who is familiar with his work, it’s hard not to feel a sense of admiration and gratitude for his contributions to the study of human nature. For anyone unfamiliar with his work, you’re in for a real treat as you explore his work.

But today I’m writing about the ideas he made famous in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” This book came out in 2011 and has been hugely influential, but I think it has yet to make its mark in how people make decisions. But I think it’s inevitable that it becomes a part of our everyday lexicon in some way.

Click to read his book

Daniel Kahneman’s work focused a lot on factors that influence our decisions. In the case of “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” he introduces the findings that our brains have different ways of processing information that sometimes lead us to make poor decisions, even though we think we’re acting rationally.

His research showed that our minds operate with two distinct thinking systems.  There’s the fast, intuitive one (System 1) that handles everyday reactions and gut feelings. And there’s the slower, analytical one (System 2) that steps in for complex problem-solving.  Understanding these systems helps us spot our own biases and cognitive errors, while offering ways to improve our decision-making.

One Mind, Two Systems

Let’s imagine you have 2 pilots in your brain. They each have their own control panels to control a different system in your mind. And while there might be some overlap in their control panels, for the most part these control panels operate very differently. So while the 2 pilots know how to operate their own systems, they’re clueless about operating the other system.

The System 1 pilot is a squirrel. Literally. 

Squirrel working on System 1

Squirrel is always looking for immediate stimuli, the stuff that matters right now. Immediate stuff, like danger and food and sounds and temperature – if it’s happening right now, Squirrel is processing it. Not only that, but Squirrel is unbelievably fast at connecting the dots between what’s happening right now and other data points, so events and stimuli are instantaneously processed and categorized, with reactions formulated before anyone knows it’s happening. Even Squirrel doesn’t know how fast this process is – he just does it automatically and then moves on to the next thing.

Sitting next to Squirrel is the pilot for System 2, who is Elephant. 

Elephant controlling System 2

The two of them usually have a good working relationship. For the most part, Elephant just lets Squirrel do his thing. Squirrel moves so fast and is all over the place, so Elephant can’t keep track of what he’s doing anyway. But Elephant is okay with this, because it allows her to go on auto-pilot and be really thoughtful and rational, and can figure solutions to tackle difficult problems. So Squirrel responds to every stimulus he can, but he still misses a lot. And Elephant is kind enough to not point that out too much, even though she only responds to the stimulus that she feels like requires some careful thought. At the same time, Squirrel can’t do math or real reasoning at all, so they both rely on Elephant to do that.

Squirrel and Elephant negotiating

They really make a great team. Squirrel is the one who instinctively catches the ball, while Elephant is the one who figures out where the ball needs to be thrown. Squirrel is the one reacting to traffic when driving the car, but Elephant is the one who looks ahead to anticipate traffic and keep them going in the right direction. Squirrel instinctively knows when that fantastic outfit is more expensive than their budget, but Elephant is the one who decides to check the price and decide whether their budget can afford it.


System 1 Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes, and Squirrel is especially prone to them.

Don’t get me wrong, nobody processes more stimuli than Squirrel, and no one makes decisions faster than Squirrel. But he has two weaknesses that can sometimes cause problems.

First, when it comes to processing stimuli, Squirrel doesn’t actually examine every bit of information that comes his way. After all, he could easily be bombarded by hundreds or even millions of bits of stimuli in a given moment, and it would be impossible to evaluate each bit independently. So Squirrel has the unparalleled ability to filter the stimuli he receives, so that he only has to deal with maybe a dozen bits of information. A dozen isn’t a lot, but Squirrel is constantly shifting focus so that new stimuli are being processed all the time. Still, there are hard limits to how much he can process. This means that even in calm moments, Squirrel is only picking up a fraction of the available stimuli. And in stressful situations of sensory overload, Squirrel is often processing even fewer bits of information because he’s so focused on the immediate problems.

Sometimes Squirrel gets overwhelmed

The second weakness is that Squirrel really only knows how to work quickly. Squirrel is quick to filter information, quick to process it, quick to make connections with it, and quick to move on to the next thing. So it’s not surprising that sometimes Squirrel misses things, or draws the wrong conclusions because he’s made assumptions since it’s faster and easier. One way this manifests is when a problem comes up that should be given to Elephant because it requires some careful thought, but instead Squirrel throws out an answer because it seemed right and has already moved on before Elephant got a chance to engage.

Optical illusions? Auditory illusions? Both are results from Squirrel assuming an answer that actually needed careful thought.

Some forms of logical fallacy are because Squirrel has engaged System 1 to come to logical conclusions that actually required careful thought. Confirmation Bias (seeking confirmation while ignoring contradictions), Anchoring Bias (attaching more meaning to an initial piece of information), and the Halo Effect (allowing our positive feelings about a person or a thing to influence our judgment) are all examples of emotional bias affecting our logic.

The same is true for stereotyping. Squirrel has made System 1 assume information about people, because it’s a shortcut for categorizing things. These assumptions then influence how we process additional information about that individual or group.

A reactive response, like anger, fear, or excitement, is what happens when System 1 has hijacked our mind. When that happens, Elephant can’t get System 2 to respond in a thoughtful way.

This is why it’s important to understand Elephant’s job with System 2.

System 2 Mistakes

Elephant is also prone to mistakes, but for very different reasons.

When it comes to problem solving, there’s no one better than Elephant. She can work her way through the problem, follow the logic, and come up with a variety of solutions that can accommodate all sorts of variables as needed. But there are two ways that Elephant can make mistakes.

First, she has to have the right information. And in any given situation, there might be too little information, which means Elephant might lack essential data. Or she might experience information overload, so she might not pick out the essential data from all the non-essential noise.

Elephant sometimes gets confused

This problem can be exacerbated when Elephant doesn’t realize that she lacks the essential information, so that she can end up with flawed answers. So even though Elephant knows that garbage in means garbage out, she doesn’t always know she has garbage.

Elephant is very clever, and is remarkably skilled at parsing out the essential data, but this mistake is always lurking around the corner

The second mistake is that sometimes Elephant doesn’t apply the right rules of logic to a problem, so she ends up with the wrong answer. What’s tough about this problem is that quite often the answer seems reasonable, so Elephant typically has no clue this mistake happened.

These logical errors might happen because the problem requires a form of logic that Elephant simply doesn’t know. Or this problem closely resembles another easier problem, so she uses the shortcut of applying the easier logic without realizing her error.

The Sunk Cost fallacy (continuing to add resources to a failed project), the Framing Effect (preferring a choice presented optimistically rather than an identical choice presented pessimistically), and Anchoring Bias (giving undue weight to the first piece of information received) are all instances where Elephant has engaged System 2 to erroneous conclusions.

When Elephant makes these mistakes, it can happen for a few common reasons.

Sometimes Elephant is just crunched for time, so she doesn’t have time to fully work things out. Sometimes things are just super complicated and uncertain, so she gets overloaded and makes mistakes. And sometimes she’s just lazy or overconfident, making assumptions or even just deferring to Squirrel’s initial impressions.

Expert Mistakes

You would think that being an expert would help to mitigate the errors that Squirrel and Elephant might make, and sometimes can really help. But there are other times that your experience and expertise can really trigger Squirrel and Elephant into irrational decisions.

First, experts can become overconfident in their reliance on System 1. So when you’re an experienced expert, System 1 becomes more efficient and automatic. This means Squirrel has to work less to come up with the right answers. But it also means that we can overly trust Squirrel to make snap judgment calls, leading us to ignore data or evidence that contradicts his initial assessment and thinking that the irrational conclusion is correct. You wouldn’t assume the random squirrel in your backyard is making rational decisions, so you should probably be a little suspicious about the Squirrel in your head tasked with that job. Elephant needs to recognize that a problem is too complex for Squirrel and step in as needed.

The second problem is that experienced experts have developed very strong pattern recognition skills. This skill is obviously incredibly useful, since it allows us to quickly recognize recurring problems that we’ve seen before and mitigate them before they get too out of control. But the downside is that we can see patterns where they don’t exist, or fall prey to cognitive biases like confirmation bias (seeking information that confirms existing beliefs) or the availability heuristic (relying on easily recalled examples). Both Squirrel and Elephant can be prone to these expert mistakes.

A third problem is that as experienced experts, we’ve developed mental shortcuts to deal with similar problems. While these mental shortcuts save time and energy, we can sometimes allow them to become overly rigid, so that we don’t adapt to relevant changes of circumstance. Again, both Squirrel and Elephant are prone to these expert mistakes.

Expert Martial Mistakes

What if your expertise is martial arts? What are the System 1 and System 2 errors that we should be aware of?

“I don’t know what’s going on…”

Let’s start with System 1. After all, in a conflict Squirrel is going to be very involved at his control board, reacting to every tiny thing that happens.

First, we can be overconfident and on autopilot. After years of training, we can be overly reliant on our instincts and our automatic responses. This can lead to underestimating less experienced opponents, misjudging unique situations, falling into predictable patterns, and failing to adapt as you gain new information.

Another problem is that Squirrel can be overwhelmed by too much stimuli, which includes extreme stress or fear. When Squirrel is overwhelmed, he freezes up under the pressure, leading to either mental paralysis or falling back on ingrained habits that may not be appropriate for the situation.

Finally, Squirrel can misread cues, either by missing crucial information or seeing patterns that aren’t really there. This can make him vulnerable to feints or misjudging an opponent’s patterns and cues.

When it comes to System 2 errors, the expert martial artist has a few things to watch out for.

One of the biggest problems for the martial artist is when Elephant starts overthinking. System 2 is vital for strategy, but if she starts overanalyzing in the heat of the moment, the results can be hesitation, missed opportunities, or paralysis by analysis. 

Another problem is that in everyday life, Elephant often has to slow Squirrel down so that she can double-check his work and make sure he’s not drawing erroneous conclusions. But always discounting Squirrel’s gut reactions in mid-fight can be a real problem, because it ignores intuition and reactions built up through experience. Martial artists have to learn how to balance System 1 and System 2.

Finally, Elephant can lose track of what’s happening if she’s hijacked by emotions. Anger, frustration, or fear can overly influence Elephant’s thinking, leading to poor judgment, rash decisions, or a breakdown in strategic planning.

Balanced Systems

So how should martial artists train their minds so as to reduce these System errors?

Again, let’s start with Squirrel and System 1. And we begin by taking advantage of what Squirrel is actually very good at.

Squirrel is amazing at instantly recognizing patterns, so we start by taking advantage of his unparalleled skill at recognizing, categorizing, and reacting to patterns. The more you train yourself to recognize patterns, the more highly developed your intuition will become so that you can react more instinctively to an opponent’s cues. At the same time, it’s important to include training that will teach you to pick out the relevant cues in an environment that can contain an overwhelming amount of stimuli. The better you are at finding the relevant data in a stressful moment, the faster your reactions will be.

On top of that pattern-recognition training is working to train your reactions. Since the core of martial arts techniques relies on muscle memory and reflexes, proper training can give you instant reactions to specific situations, like blocking or executing a takedown. Squirrel is fantastic at these reflexive reactions. But you have to make sure you don’t get trapped by your own patterns, so that you fail to adapt. A clever opponent will try to trap you with your own reflexes. You don’t want to have a reflexive reaction that puts you in danger.

Finally, train Squirrel to have a high degree of situational awareness. This means not only scanning your opponent for subtle cues that may reveal their intentions, but also keeping track of your overall environment, so that you stay aware of other people, objects, and paths of movement. In a real life conflict, you may not have the luxury of focusing on a single opponent. Having already trained yourself to possess a 360 degree view of your environment can be critical for quickly and effectively dealing with situations that devolve into sudden chaos.

Can Squirrel and Elephant find balance?

What about Elephant and System 2? One of the most difficult things about Elephant’s role in a conflict is that she may have to process information too quickly for her abilities. This will be especially true when things are happening quickly, or there’s a high level of stress – both of these will confuse and disrupt Elephant’s thinking. So you have to train yourself to keep Elephant focused on specific tasks, such as strategic analysis.

When we talk about strategic analysis, we’re talking about seeing your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, analyzing the environment, and adapting your tactics on the fly. It takes training to understand how to keep Elephant quietly analyzing in the background without interfering with Squirrel’s reactions, but then letting her drive System 2 into action. A well trained combatant is skilled at using Elephant’s insights without letting her clog up the system along the way.

Elephant is actually most useful during the training process. She’s extremely capable of learning, reflecting, and adjusting in a training environment. But as you train, you’re also teaching Elephant how to keep quiet and let things happen. Sometimes intelligent people will overthink every moment, because Elephant is so concerned about getting it right. It’s an important skill to teach Elephant to let things happen and learn from them afterward. In the same way, analysis after the fact is a helpful way to keep her quiet, because she’s less driven to have immediate input if she knows she’s going to have full input afterward.

A Perfect Process

The key to martial arts mastery lies in the smooth interplay between Squirrel and Elephant, between System 1 and System 2. 

Squirrel uses System 1 to provide the foundation of instinctive reactions and honed skills.

Elephant uses System 2 to build upon that foundation with strategic thinking and adaptation.

If your mind is a race car, then System 1 is the well-tuned engine and the responsive handling. And System 2 is the skilled driver who steers the car strategically and makes informed decisions to navigate the task ahead.

You need both Systems to operate at their best and to operate well together. In this way, you will become a more complete martial artist, capable of both instinctive reactions and strategic thinking. 

You’re lucky, because martial arts training lends itself well to naturally training both Systems. The repetition of drills and techniques improves System 1’s automaticity, while strategic exercises and sparring sessions challenge System 2 for better decision-making.

In your training, it helps to be deliberate in identifying when you’re relying on System 1 vs. System 2. Try various drills and sparring scenarios that train the Systems, both independently and together.

Don’t forget to honestly and systematically break down your decisions afterward. Where did intuition guide you correctly? Where might you have benefited from more conscious analysis? Remember that even with the best training, Squirrel and Elephant make errors. The key is to recognize these errors, learn from them, and keep refining your ability to harness both System 1 and System 2 thinking for maximum effectiveness.


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