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Back to the Future: System 3

Our whole lives are spent anticipating what is yet to come. The time course of decision-making varies depending on the outcomes of both action and inaction. Based on the posed inquiry, you may have limits to how long you can consider your options to reaction. Deciding if you take the next exit on the highway, change the color of a brand logo, or dodge the football heading towards your face all require various amounts of influence from different styles of thinking. Past, present and future systems of thinking are strongly integrated. The way we prepare for the future is a large part of how we conduct ourselves in the present moment, and yet, both are influenced by past experiences. Through anticipation and imagination, the intentions and thoughts towards the future can prove themselves to be useful for leading action.

Systems of thinking are utilized in literature to categorize abstract information such as thought processes. The research of Epstein (1994) states, “…there are two independent systems for processing information, experiential and rational, and that experiential relative to rational processing is increased when emotional consequences are increased.” Epstein’s approach at dual cognitive processing is expanded upon by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. The book states that System 1 is unconscious, instinctive, and fast reactions. Thought of as a reflex, System 1 triggers an automated thinking process. Since it is considered nearly an instant decision, System 1 can have systematic errors for everyday decisions. There is little to no attention required for System 1, thus, making it possible to quickly decide the multiple decisions necessary to get through the day (Kahneman, 2011). System 1 thoughts can vary from running from the sounds of danger to preferring a brighter color bottle of shampoo. Small impressions enable us to create shortcuts, therefore, quickening our choices without deliberate thought. System 1’s thought process creates a continuous flow of interpretations. We can engage with the world around us while processing the vast amount of information experienced at any given moment because of System 1 thinking.

Figure 1: A general overview of System 1 and System 2.

Unlike System 1, System 2 is described as the slower, more rational and deliberative notion of attention. System 2 requires our focus because it is a part of how we consciously do work, build relationships, and develop ideas. The self-aware process is critical and logical by constructing thoughts in a series of steps (Kahneman, 2011). If our attention on the stimulus is wavering, it is reflected in the performance. Fully engaging with information, such as providing feedback, is part of System 2 thinking. Challenging questions during an interview, bracing for the starter gun in a race or trying to solve a murder mystery on Netflix are a part of the System 2 thinking process.

While these two concepts cover a large portion of thought processes, there has been an argument for an additional type of thinking involved in decision-making. System 3 considers the use of imagination by using past experiences to anticipate the future. Being able to create a sensory experience in your mind by conjuring up different scenarios is a unique progression that assists choosing what action to ultimately choose. Both System 1 and System 2 styles of thinking are utilized in the process by acting on associations and focusing on past experiences. With those contributions from the other systems, System 3 creates predictions in the mind and then prioritizes what is the best likely outcome of a potential decision. System 3 thinking is combined with the other modes of thinking by allowing consumers to deliberate on theoretical outcomes, and thus, experience an emotional preview that could be elicited by future-facing possibilities. Consider how you would feel if Google started to charge you each time you searched a new topic. Would you be confused, frustrated, appalled or a combination of these emotions? Do you think you would start using Bing in protest? These theoretical situations provide an idea of how you would feel and react to a potential future change. It is within the practical strategy of System 3 that provides an opportunity to understand what motivates consumers to make choices.

Figure 2: A visual representation of the three systems primary time courses. The systems overlap since the root of processing is associations. Therefore, retrospective thoughts can be applied to future thinking.

A major component of System 3 is the notion that prospective thinking requires generating, exploring, and evaluating past experiences to create multiple alternatives for the present. Developing mental simulations about how to progress in alternative ways create more advantageous decisions (Baumeister, Maranges, & Sjåstad, 2018). Prospection includes four aspects of simulation: navigational, social, intellectual, and memorial (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2013). The ability to map out and envision different routes to get from one place to another is the navigational simulation. Social simulations, or episodic future thinking, include imagining hypothetical events that may happen (Szpunar, 2010). Additionally, proposing an idea in front of a board or to a close friend could be an example of a social simulation. Anticipating reactions, questions or consequences to specific conversations involves considering both the reaction of your audience and your response and is a valuable aspect of social simulation that allows you to prepare mentally for an interaction. The third type of prospective thinking involves critically thinking about how to explain or expand on an idea. Intellectual simulation would be the act of planning to conduct additional research about a topic or simply preparing how you will approach the topic with others. Finally, the fourth sector of prospective thinking involves recalling a situation and developing alternative approaches. Being grateful for wearing a helmet before a bike accident or wishing you turned sooner to avoid the pothole are both examples of this type of thinking. Remembering past decisions and considering hypothetical events that could have happened is known as memorial simulation (Seligman et al, 2013) or episodic counterfactual thinking (De Brigard & Parikh, 2019).

Say you are debating buying a new shirt on Amazon. As you scroll through different styles and colors, you click quickly on one of the top recommended choices [System 1]. Then, maybe you peek at the price and start to rationalize the purchase [System 2] by creating potential outfits or envisioning what the shirt will look like on you [System 3]. While developing these mental stimulations, you elicit a certain type of emotional response about how you would feel in it. During this very common scenario, each system thought-processes has some type of influence about not only if you decide to add the shirt to your cart but also if you are ultimately going to buy it.  

Since System 3 has a major anticipatory component, it useful when attempting to launch a new concept, product, or communications approach. It also may be helpful when first starting to build a brand to see what best resonates with a target audience. The analysis behind System 3 has a lot of potential to include an implication map to visualize how consumers are influenced or graphs to demonstrate different association strengths the consumer has with various attributes. Both qualitative and quantitative analysis can be applied to System 3 research. Play-based or projective testimonies share empirical responses of the consumer, while numerical data, such as time-pressured tasks or rating scales, provide statistical findings. By combining the information from both components of data, the researchers can suggest what is mentally rewarding.

How are market research studies with System 3 conducted?

While System 3 research is still being established, there are some initial attempts at intertwining this concept into a testing setting. One method that has emerged from the development of System 3 includes having a moderator lead a participant with the use of projective techniques. Simultaneously, there are individualized tactile tasks for participants to have the freedom to create, while sharing stories and metaphors to explain responses to deliberately chosen questions.

In the following example, the research topic is about Disney World. The study begins with a series of thought-prompts, asking participants to consider the current state of the industry. The questions are intended to stimulate participants’ imaginations by prodding sensory experiences about envisioning what they hear or see when they think about Disney World. The questions shift to forward thinking by asking what they expect may happen. The transition from present situations to upcoming predictions is to help them carry over current associations to their opinions about the potential future product. Being asked to consider how the company may plan forces them to consider various stakeholders’ perspectives on Disney World.

Figure 3: An example of an implication map from System 3 survey responses. Lighter blue are what participants tend to like, while darker blue is not as popular. Larger nodes are predicted to be influential, while the smaller nodes are less likely to be important. Note this is a hypothetical example not based off actual responses.

Following the series of questions is a basic, timed, check all that apply (CATA) question about what they feel will have the biggest influence on Disney World in the future. While CATA is not able to determine intensity, using this measure can be helpful if the participants find it difficult to verbalize perceptions. An open-ended prompt then asks the participants to name an additional factor not previously listed that may be influential. This encourages the consumers to use future-facing thinking to create personal contributions that could make an impact on the company. Finally, to get a better understanding of participants’ priorities among the CATA options, additional conjoint analysis questions are included to evaluate how each option would rank between each other. The questions emphasize potential scenarios based on the responses from CATA. It could say something such as, “If Disney Springs becomes extremely valuable, which of the following trends will be boosted as a result?” The responses are recorded and utilized to create a visual diagram expressing predictions (based on size) as well as fondness (based on color). The diagram is referred to as an implication map and is intended to provide a visual representation of the responses obtained during testing.   

Figure 4: Two types of tests used to gain an understanding of participants’ characteristics and emotional function: (left) the inkblots used during the Rorschach test and (right) building blocks methodology.

Another strategy to uncover insights about consumer anticipation or aspirations includes playing with building blocks (yup, think K’nex playtime). This System 3 methodology subscribes to the same concept of the Rorschach test. Both tests use different mediums to interpret characteristics and emotional function of the participant: Rorschach through inkblots, while System 3 is via building blocks. Essentially, a moderator poses to a focus group sequential questions that become more abstract as the conversation continues. Participants respond to these prompts both tangibly, by building block models, and verbally, through metaphor explanations or storytelling. For example, let’s say that the moderator is trying to learn about the best type of work infrastructure. Building a green box can symbolize nature because this participant values time outdoors. Furthermore, the participant shares experiences where nature has inspired great ideas or motivated the participant to think outside-the-box. By having a conversation during an activity, this method transforms thoughts into structures by remembering the past to imagine future outcomes. Intangible questions about feelings are intentionally asked to initiate metaphorical thinking.  Symbols are intended to be expressed through tangible objects, hence, a green box representing nature. The conversations that occur among the group inevitably elicit themes. Within a consumer space, it allows companies to gain a unique perspective on what participants view as futuristic proactiveness. 

There are some limitations with this version of System 3 analysis. Since participants are using small building blocks to create structures, there must be a certain level of finger dexterity. Best responses tend to be from participants under the age of 60 years old. While limiting a population sample is never ideal, this is not the only component to be cautious of with this methodology. This System 3 approach is extremely interactive. It relies heavily on the use of a moderator to provide prompts, create a group dynamic and maintain a relaxed atmosphere. Also, due to the high reliance on verbal communication, this approach works best with participants that are more extraverted. It may seem silly to point out, but introverts are consumers too! Limits based on personality-types of participants leave room for inaccurate depictions of what the general consumers are interested in.

For those extraverts who are open to sharing, there are still some questionable influences due to the reliance of a trained moderator. Subliminal influences can affect how a participant responds. Something as small as vocal intonations or body language can potentially alter a participant’s experience. Yet, a huge component of this System 3 approach is collaborative. Models created by different participants are intentionally meant to build upon each other through the group dynamic and conversation. Research where parent-child partners or male versus female groups have utilized this qualitative research approach has shown this method can cause greater influences on how an individual would respond to a prompt.

The behavioral research process of analyzing prospective thinking relies on a lot of metaphors and symbols to explain what a model means. These narratives and conversations eventually lead to themes of the session. The type of personalities within each group influences the outcome of each research session. Another aspect of the sample that is skewed involves the personality types that qualify for this type of research. Participants are screened to be more susceptible to being verbally expressive. By only analyzing a certain type of personality-type, the findings being measured can be disputed. It can be challenging to overcome these types of concerns, especially if a small sample size is acceptable in this approach.

The two different approaches mentioned in this article are not the first—nor the last— to utilize System 3 thinking. These methodologies are meant to gain a deeper understanding of how a new product experience would appeal to consumers. These approaches focus on gaining insight into company developments such as trends, team strategies, and product uses. The notion of future thinking allows the consumer to imagine multiple possibilities and gives them agency to envision ideals for businesses to use for future developments.

When would System 3 be beneficial?

While System 3 is a newer concept and has plenty of components to revise, the use of future thinking in general can be extremely helpful. In everyday life, we engage in “what ifs” to learn from the past to better our future (Smallman & Summerville, 2018). There are also times where we recall experiences of great success with relief to appreciate that a situation had a positive outcome, thus, reinforcing if a similar situation is to occur again, we will be prepared. Fear and anxiety are often caused by future unknowns (Brown, Macleod, Tata, & Goddard, 2002). By formulating calls to action through future thinking, we exercise a sense of control.

System 3 is a recent development within decision-making research, which means that there are plenty of kinks that need to be worked out. The most glaringly noticeable concern regarding how System 3 works is the inconsistency in its approach. As touched on earlier, some applications insist on including a moderator that prompts participants to discuss the stimulus. Associations, by nature, have bias interconnected with it. By having a moderator, with his or her own bias, involved in the projection technique leads to some concern. No one can control the implicit bias interspersed within the intonation of the way a script is presented. Although the moderator can consciously (*shout-out to System 2*) attempt to remain consistent among all the trials, there is no way to guarantee each probe will remain the same. This could impact the participant experience, and thus, influence the answers provided in the study. However, there are always exceptions. In situations that involve a participant who struggles to articulate his or her responses, having a moderator help understand what the participant is struggling to express can be useful. Other methodologies use online questionnaires in which the questioning implies future-thinking; yet, there is no standardized language for prospection. With the novelty of prospection research, it raises the question about the definite claims capable of being made from this type of research. This is not a suggestion to halt the studies, but rather to analyze the results like a pilot study— the information reported may be accurate, but generalizations should not be made.

The “System” labels are theoretical constructs designed to help create a language to discuss the functions and processes of the brain. While this concept is not by any means new, developing a type of diction that is universally accepted will help advancement of how the field is able to address behavioral and market research. System 3 is still very much being refined and fine-tuned to find its space within the field. Moving forward with both System 3 and other labels that emerge, it is important to be simultaneously critical and open-minded to these progressions. System 3 thinking does not solidify the future but actively works to shape alternative possibilities. An appreciation for maybes and what-ifs further the development of any critically thought-out idea. Harnessing the importance of what a consumer believes may or may not happen guides us to better steer in the direction of a successful desired outcome.


Baumeister, R. F., Maranges, H. M., & Sjåstad, H. (2018). Consciousness of the future as a matrix of maybe: Pragmatic prospection and the simulation of alternative possibilities. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 5(3), 223.

Brown, G. P., Macleod, A. K., Tata, P., & Goddard, L. (2002). Worry and the simulation of future outcomes. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 15(1), 1-17.

De Brigard, F., & Parikh, N. (2019). Episodic Counterfactual Thinking. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(1), 59-66.

Epstein, S. (1994). Integration of the cognitive and the psychodynamic unconscious. American psychologist, 49(8), 709.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Seligman, M. E., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(2), 119-141.

Smallman, R., & Summerville, A. (2018). Counterfactual thought in reasoning and performance. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 12(4), e12376.

Szpunar, K. K. (2010). Episodic future thought: An emerging concept. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(2), 142-162.



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