What is Dual Process Theory

Dual Process Theory

In psychology, a dual process theory explains how cognition can emerge in two separate ways or as a result of two processes. Often, the two processes are composed of an implicit (automatic), unconscious process and an explicit (controlled), conscious process.

The origins of dual process theory likely go back quite far. For instance, Spinoza (1632–1677) distinguished between passion and reason. William James (1842-1910) thought that there were two types of thinking: associative and genuine reasoning.

James proposed that empirical thought was employed in fields such as art and design. James would recall images and concepts from his earlier experiences, providing possibilities for comparison or abstraction.

He claimed that associative knowledge was simply derived from previous experiences, referring to it as “only reproductive”. James argued that accurate thinking might help people overcome “unprecedented situations” in the same way that a map could help them navigate barriers.

Following William James’ work, a variety of dual process theories emerged. Dual process models are widely used in the research of social psychological variables, such as attitude change. Examples include Petty and Cacioppo’s elaboration likelihood model and Chaiken’s heuristic systematic model.

According to these ideas, persuasion can occur after rigorous investigation or incredibly superficial reasoning. Attention and working memory have been viewed in cognitive psychology as two different processes.

Whether the focus is on social psychology or cognitive psychology, there have been several examples of dual process theories developed. The examples here are only a small sample of the many existing.

Dual Process Theory Examples

In 1974, cognitive scientists Peter Wason and Jonathan St. B. T. Evans proposed a dual process theory. Evans’ latter approach distinguishes two sorts of processes: heuristic processes and analytic processes.

He suggested that during heuristic processes, an individual selects knowledge that is relevant to the current circumstance. Relevant information is processed further, whereas irrelevant information is not.

Analytic processes follow on from heuristic processes. During analytic processes, pertinent information selected during heuristic processes is used to make decisions about the situation.

Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo proposed a dual process theory for social psychology in 1986. Their hypothesis is known as the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. According to their thesis, there are two basic approaches to persuasion in decision making.

The first path is known as the central route, and it occurs when a person carefully considers a situation, expands on the information they are provided, and constructs an argument. This option is taken when a person has a high level of motivation and ability.

The second method is known as the peripheral path, and it occurs when a person does not carefully consider a problem and instead employs shortcuts to make decisions. This method arises when an individual’s motivation or ability is low.

Steven Sloman provided another explanation of dual processing in 1996. He claimed that associative reasoning splits stimuli into logical clusters of information based on statistical consistency.

Sloman proposed that how you associate is directly proportionate to the similarity of previous experiences, with reasoning determined by temporal and similarity linkages rather than an underlying mechanical structure. He considered the Rule-based system to be another method of reasoning.

The rule-based system used logical structure and variables based on rule systems to reach conclusions that differed from those of the associative system. He also believed that the Rule-based system controlled the associative system, albeit only through suppression. This view aligns well with previous work on computational models of dual processes of thinking.

Daniel Kahneman provided further interpretation by differentiating the two styles of processing more, calling them intuition and reasoning in 2003. Intuition (or system 1), similar to associative reasoning, was determined to be fast and automatic, usually with strong emotional bonds included in the reasoning process.

Kahneman said that this kind of reasoning was based on habits and very difficult to change or manipulate. Reasoning (or system 2) was slower and much more volatile, being subject to conscious judgments and attitudes.

Dual Process Theories in Social Psychology

The dual process influences social psychology in areas such as stereotyping, categorization, and judgment. In dual process theories, the study of automaticity and implicitity have the most influence on a person’s perception.

Categorization is the fundamental process of stereotyping in which persons are assigned to social groups with certain stereotypes associated with them. It is capable of retrieving people’s judgments automatically, with no subjective intent or effort. The object can also activate an attitude on its own.


Habituation can be defined as a decrease in reaction to a recurrent stimulus. According to Groves and Thompson, habituation is similar to a dual process.

The dual process hypothesis of behavioral habituation is based on two underlying (non-behavioral) processes: depression and facilitation, the relative intensity of which determines whether or not habituation or sensitization is observed in the behavior.

Habituation reduces the intensity of a recurrent stimulus over time, subconsciously. As a result, a person’s conscious attention to the stimulus gradually decreases.

Sensitization, on the other hand, gradually increases a stimulus, bringing it to the forefront of consciousness. Though these two systems are not both aware, they interact to help humans understand their surroundings by weakening some inputs and increasing others.


Dual process models of stereotyping suggest that when we observe an individual, salient prejudices about them are engaged automatically. If no other motive or cognition exists, these active representations will guide conduct. Controlled cognitive processes, on the other hand, can prevent stereotypes from being used when motivation and cognitive resources are available.

In 1989, Patricia Devine presented evidence for the dual process hypothesis of stereotyping in three experiments. The first study indicated that prejudice (as measured by the Modern Racism Scale) was unrelated to awareness of cultural stereotypes about African Americans. In Study 2, individuals employed automatically activated stereotypes in evaluations independent of their level of bias (personal belief).

Participants were primed with stereotype-relevant or irrelevant terms before being asked to rate the hostility of an undetermined race target who was exhibiting ambiguously hostile behaviors. Regardless of prejudice degree, participants who were primed with more stereotype-relevant terms expressed greater animosity toward the ambiguous target.

Study 3 looked into whether people could control stereotype use by activating personal beliefs. When asked to name African Americans, those with low bias provided more positive examples than those with high prejudice.

Terror Management

According to psychologists Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon, the dual process model, when applied to terror management theory, identifies two systems via which the brain handles dread of death: distal and proximal. Distal defenses are classified as system 1 since they are unconscious, whereas proximal defenses are classified as system 2 because they involve conscious thought.

However, research by the ManyLabs project has recently indicated that the mortality salience effect (i.e., meditating on one’s own death encouraging a stronger defense of one’s own worldview) has not been replicated. ManyLabs aims to reproduce a major theoretical discovery across numerous laboratories; in this case, some of these labs had input from the original terror management theorists.

In distal defenses, subconscious, abstract ideas of death are dealt with. THey are experiential, and happen when mortality is not salient. They function on the basis of self-conception as part of a death-transcendent reality (that is, thinking of oneself as part of a culture that will survive beyond one’s own life).

Proximal defenses are concerned with conscious thoughts of death at the level of a specific threat. They are rational and happen immediately after a direct reminder or threat of death. They function by pushing thoughts about death into the distant future and removing them from conscious thought.


The Elaboration Likelihood Model, another prominent theory within dual process theories, describes two routes to persuasion: the central and the peripheral. The central route entails a diligent consideration of arguments and evidence, leading to long-lasting attitude change, while the peripheral route depends on superficial cues and heuristics.

This model underscores how persuasion tactics can differentially affect people based on which route is triggered. The Heuristic-Systematic Model, in contrast, posits that there are two distinct ways in which people form judgments and persuade others.

The heuristic processing is fast and efficient, relying on intuitive thought and mental shortcuts. On the other hand, systematic processing involves a thorough evaluation of evidence and logical reasoning. Both processes can operate simultaneously or independently and can influence attitudes and attitude change.

Information Processing

Dual-process models of thinking and decision making assume that there are two systems or minds in one brain. According to current theory, there are two cognitive systems that underpin thinking and reasoning, and these systems evolved separately. Keith Stanovich and Richard West devised the terms “implicit” and “explicit” for these systems, as well as the more neutral “System 1” and “System 2”.

System 1

Social psychologist John Bargh redefined the concept of an automatic process by breaking it down into four components: awareness, intentionality, efficiency, and controllability. A procedure might be classified as automatic if the user is ignorant of it.

A person can be unaware of a mental process in three ways: the presence of the stimulus (subliminal), how the stimulus is categorized or interpreted (unaware of the activation of stereotype or trait constructs), or the effect the stimulus has on the person’s judgments or actions (misattribution). Another approach to classify a mental activity as automatic is if it is inadvertent.

Intentionality refers to the deliberate “starting up” of a process. An automatic process may begin without the person consciously willing it to start.

The third aspect of automaticity is efficiency. Efficiency is the quantity of cognitive resources needed for a process. An automated procedure is efficient since it uses less resources.

The fourth component is controllability, which refers to an individual’s conscious ability to stop a process. An automatic process is uncontrollable, which means it will run until it is completed and cannot be stopped.

One insight from psychological research on dual process theory is that our System 1 (intuition) is more accurate in areas where we’ve gathered a lot of data with reliable and fast feedback, such as social dynamics or cognitive domains in which we’ve become experts or simply familiar.
Intuitive: System 1 operates in an intuitive and automatic manner. It’s quick to react without necessitating deliberate conscious thought.
Effortless: This system functions seamlessly, enabling individuals to perform tasks such as reading emotions and recognizing patterns without apparent effort.
Subconscious: Most processes governed by System 1 occur beneath the level of conscious awareness.
Examples of System 1 Operations: Detecting hostility in a voice, driving a car on an empty road

System 2

System 2 is thought to be unique to humans and only recently evolved. It can also be referred to as the explicit system, rule-based system, rational system, or analytic system.

It performs slower, sequential thinking. It is domain-general and occurs in the central working memory system.  As a result, it has limited capacity and is slower than System 1, making it comparable to general intelligence.

It is regarded as the rational system because it uses logical reasoning. Overall, System 2 is rule-based, analytic, controlled, cognitively taxing, and slow.

Deliberate: System 2 is characterized by conscious, deliberate thought processes requiring effort and attention.
Systematic: Using this system, people can handle complex tasks that involve reasoning, such as solving mathematical problems or processing abstractions.
Controlled: Unlike System 1, System 2 requires active and often sustained focus.
Interaction Between Systems
Complementarity: System 1 and System 2 frequently work together, with the intuitive operations of System 1 being either endorsed or corrected by the more deliberative System 2.
Resource Allocation: Since System 2 processes demand more cognitive resources, it is selectively engaged, often when System 1 outputs are insufficient or when a task requires conscious attention.
Automaticity to Attention: When an unfamiliar situation arises, or when errors are detected, the transition from automatic System 1 processing to the more attentive System 2 occurs.

Dual Coding

Allan Paivio developed a dual-coding theory of information processing. According to this approach, cognition is the coordinated activity of two independent but interconnected systems: a nonverbal system and a verbal system specialized for dealing with language.

The nonverbal system is said to have originated earlier in evolution. Both systems depend on separate parts of the brain. Paivio has reported that nonverbal, visual images are processed more swiftly and are roughly twice as memorable.

Furthermore, because the verbal and nonverbal systems are cumulative, learning with both sorts of information can help increase memory. This additive dual coding claim is consistent with data that verbalized thinking does not always overcome common incorrect intuitions or heuristics, such as studies that found that thinking aloud during heuristics and biases tests did not increase test performance.

Learning Model

Ron Sun, a cognitive scientist, suggested a dual-process model of learning that included both implicit and explicit learning. The Connectionist Learning with Adaptive Rule Induction On-line (CLARION) model reinterpreted substantial behavioral data from psychological investigations of implicit learning and skill acquisition in general.

The resulting theory is two-level and interactive, based on the idea of the interaction of one-shot explicit rule learning (i.e., explicit learning) and gradual implicit tuning through reinforcement (i.e., implicit learning), and it accounts for a wide range of previously unexplained cognitive data and phenomena.

The Dual Process Learning model can be used in a group learning context. This is known as The Dual Objective Model of Cooperative Learning, and it necessitates group practice that includes both cognitive and emotive abilities among the team.

It requires active engagement from the teacher to oversee the group throughout the process until the product is properly done. The instructor focuses on the efficacy of cognitive and affective behaviors in the cooperative learning setting.

Assessing Dual Process Models through Research

The evaluation of dual process models necessitates methodical scrutiny through empirical evidence and statistical methods. This rigorous approach establishes the validity of models that explain how different cognitive processes operate in tandem.

Jonathan Evans developed the first studies on the belief-bias effect to establish a conflict between logical reasoning and prior knowledge of the veracity of findings. Participants were asked to rate syllogisms in the following categories: valid arguments with plausible conclusions, valid arguments with unbelievable conclusions, invalid arguments with believable conclusions, and invalid arguments with unbelievable conclusions.

Participants were instructed to only agree on conclusions that logically flow from the premises provided. The findings indicate that when the conclusion is credible, individuals mistakenly accept flawed conclusions as valid more frequently than invalid reasons that support disagreeable conclusions. This is interpreted to mean that System 1 beliefs are interfering with the logic of System 2.

Working Memory

De Neys did research on manipulating working memory capacity when answering syllogistic problems. This was accomplished by burdening executive processes with secondary responsibilities.

The results showed that when System 1 triggered the correct response, the distractor task had no effect on the production of a correct answer, indicating that System 1 is automatic and works independently of working memory; however, when belief bias was present (System 1 belief-based response differed from the logically correct System 2 response), the participants’ performance was hampered by the decreased availability of working memory.

This is consistent with the dual-process theories of reasoning’s understanding of System 1 and System 2, since System 1 was proven to act independently of working memory, while System 2 was hampered by a shortage of working memory space, so System 1 took over, resulting in a belief bias.

fMRI Evidence

Vinod Goel and colleagues used fMRI experiments to provide neuropsychological evidence for dual-process theories of cognition. They offered evidence that the two types of reasoning were controlled by anatomically distinct brain regions.

They discovered that whereas abstract formal issue reasoning activated the parietal system, content-based reasoning activated the left temporal hemisphere. It was determined that different types of reasoning, depending on the semantic content, activated one of two distinct systems in the brain.

A similar study used fMRI during a belief-bias exam. The study found that many mental processes competed for control of the response to the belief-bias challenges.

The prefrontal cortex was crucial in recognizing and resolving disputes, which are characteristic of System 2, and it had previously been linked to that system. The ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with System 1’s more intuitive or heuristic reactions, competed with the prefrontal cortex.

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