Kickable Stones



We have two operating systems in our minds, the conscious (rational) and the subconscious (emotional).

The conscious mind is slow, deliberate, logical and careful. It’s a processor which works with rational arguments, understands numbers and interprets words. It calculates, compares and plans and is the “head” in the “head vs heart” we refer to a lot. Of the two sides of the mind it is relatively slow and clunky, and requires a lot of mental effort.

The subconscious, in comparison, is a speedy, fast supercomputer. It processes the simultaneous streams of information received by all of our senses, is responsible for unconsciously maintaining our body systems, and controls our emotions, memory processes and instincts. It delivers snap intuitive judgements. By its definition, we don’t have direct access to the subconscious - but we definitely feel its effects.

This dual-system model (conscious / subconscious thinking) is the cornerstone of behavioural economics. In this field, the super-fast intuitive, emotional type of thinking is referred to as “system 1” and the slower, more deliberate rational type of thinking is referred to as “system 2”.

“Kickable" Stones

A great example of the difference between the two types of thinking is illustrated with "kickable" stones. A kickable stone is a stone you find on a path that you feel a compulsion to kick. The picture at the top of the page is a photograph I took of a kickable stone on a path near my home.

For starters, the cold, rational system 2 brain could never understand how it is possible to experience a feeling of joy from kicking a small stone along a path, though I’m sure you have experienced it. I’m sure you’ve also experienced the extra joy you feel if you kick it just right and it stops in a place where you get to kick it again a few paces later.

But how did you actually kick the stone? It happens automatically doesn’t it? Our super-fast system 1 brain is fast and flexible enough to apply a closed loop of judgment, making minor tweaks and adjustments to our gait as we approach the stone, so that we are in the perfect position to kick it as we walk past.

If our system 2 brains were managing this process instead, this is what would happen…

• You would have to consciously choose which foot you wish to kick the stone with, based on it’s position on the path.

• To kick the stone correctly you would need plant your other foot approximately a quarter of a pace length from it, at hip width.

• You would have to know exactly how far away the stone is, and what your average pace length is so you can calculate how many steps you need to take.

• You might have to shuffle forward a few centimetres so you can start from the right place.

• You’d find the mental math quite hard, your pupils would narrow, shutting out periphery signals, and your brain would start to hurt a bit with the cognitive effort of working it all out.

You’d probably still miss.

The next time you see a kickable stone, be more consciously aware of how you approach it. You’ll probably find you walk awkwardly towards it too, because walking smoothly is also one of those things we do better when we don’t think about it.