Two Minds Theory

Why Do We Need This Theory?

Two Minds Theory is a novel approach to understanding people's behavior. The overall theory has been developed by professionals in psychology, neuroscience, and economics over a period of years. Our version of Two Minds Theory is intended for health care professionals who want to help people change their behavior to improve their health. But Two Minds Theory can be understood as a very broad explanation for all kinds of behavior, not just health behaviors. We started with the question "why don't people take their medications?" but the answer to that question led us to ask the more general question "why do people do anything?" Two Minds Theory proposes potential answers.

Video Introduction

This 15-minute video summarizes key concepts in Two Minds Theory: the intuitive system, the narrative system, the principle of temporal immediacy that differentiates them, and the concept of intention-behavior gaps.

What Are Your Two Minds?

Two Minds Theory suggests that everyone has two separate mental systems, which operate independently of one another. Every time you are confronted by a new situation, both of your minds are activated and generate responses.

  • The Intuitive System - a processing system that works very fast, can multitask effectively, and operates below the level of conscious thought. Intuitive processes are experienced as automatic, and execute behaviors with little to no conscious input. The intuitive system can produce exceptional results through fast and fluid responses to emerging circumstances. Intuitive processes may or not be represented in language, and some may be permanently outside our awareness. Intuitive thinking is not one system, but a set of systems with diverse roles in perception, motor function, emotional arousal, procedural memory, and selection of actions based on consequences.
  • The Narrative System - a language- and imagery-based processing system that generates concepts, explanations, plans, and ideas. The narrative system is generally experienced consciously, and is usually identified with a person's sense of self. Narrative thinking involves abstract representations, declarative memory, logical reasoning, and social cognition. The narrative system can produce exceptional results through a slow, deliberative process that may involve generating complex counterfactual scenarios, but it is limited to (probably) a single focus at any one time. It also distorts actual experience by filtering it through language and beliefs.

The table below (from our 2018 theory paper in Nursing Research) summarizes key differences between the two mental systems.

Differences between Intuitive and Narrative Thinking

Adapted from Table 2 in Cook, P. F., Schmiege, S. J., Reeder, B., Horton-Deutsch, S., Lowe, N. K., & Meek, P. (2018). Temporal immediacy: A two-system theory of mind for understanding and changing health behaviors. Nursing Research, 67, 108-121. doi:10.1097/NNR.0000000000000265