Introducing System 3: How We Use Our Imagination to Make Choices

The consumer decision-making process is more than a purely emotional or rational assessment, with a third option powered by the imagination.

In recent years we’ve become used to thinking about decisions as “system 1” or “system 2”. System 1 choices are automatic decisions, made without thinking, based on an immediate emotional or sensory reaction. System 2 is used to stop and rationally calculate the consequences of our choices, and determine the best cost-benefit tradeoff.

But these two processes don’t capture every decision. Indeed they might only encompass a minority of our daily choices.

Recent work in neuroscience and psychology has discovered another way of making choices: with the imagination. Customers imagine their possible futures: the outcomes they would experience after a choice, and how those outcomes will make them feel. The future that makes them feel happiest will be the one they choose. These choices use different parts of the brain than System 1 and 2. They are called System 3 choices.

Think about how you might buy a car. System 1 would suggest that you see a colour, or shape, or brand of car, immediately fall in love with it and buy without thinking. System 2 implies that you calculate the price, financing options, fuel efficiency, resale value – and pick the model that makes the most financial sense.

A System 3 decision would look like this: imagine yourself driving that car. Feel, in your mind, the sensations of the seats and how it drives. Imagine how your partner or your friends would view you in it. Consider, too, the impact on your bank account and what else you would be missing out on to pay for it. How you’d feel about the environmental impact and the safety this model offers your family. How do you feel? Is it good? Maybe you also have another model in mind. Try the same process on that. Does it feel better? The car you feel best in – within this mental simulation – is probably the one you’ll choose.

This System 3 process applies to our big choices in life, but also to smaller ones. At the shelf, considering a new breakfast cereal or a new skincare product, you’ll imagine how it tastes or feels before buying it. You might test out the moisturiser from a sample jar, but you still need to project yourself into the future – will it feel the same when you’re applying it before bed, or after you wake up? Your System 3 imagination combines past and present experiences with possible futures, and works out which it enjoys most.

System 1 still has a place: once you are familiar with a product, you might buy it automatically. And we still use system 2 for lots of financial and practical calculations. Indeed, System 3 incorporates elements of systems 1 and 2 in how it works.

But if you’re:

  • Launching something new
  • Trying out a new communications or pack approach
  • Building a brand
  • Or selling something with consequences beyond just the few moments after purchase
  • Then your customers are probably using System 3 to make their decisions, and you need to use System 3 tools to predict the success of what you’re testing.

Some existing research tools can be used to measure System 3, and new ones are emerging too. Implicit Prospection Tools, newly designed qualitative projection techniques, and Adaptive Concept Tests are among them.

You can find out more about System 3 in our talk at IIeX Behaviour London on 10th May, digging into Leigh’s blog on the science behind System 3 or by searching for “prospection psychology”. It’s likely to be a hot topic in the coming years (use your System 3 to imagine that possible future!) – and you can get ahead of the curve if you learn about it today.

2 thoughts on “Introducing System 3: How We Use Our Imagination to Make Choices

  1. Bressoud

    Hello Leigh. Is there any link beetwen your great imaginative System 3 and Olivier Houdé System 3, the executive control ability which inhibit System 1 to activate System 2?

    1. Hi Étienne

      There is no direct link, I came up with my version independently. But Houdé’s version was brought to my attention recently and I plan to read more of his work.

      Paradoxically, I think System 2 is better described as an executive control ability to inhibit (my version of) System 3! System 2 can identify inconsistencies in System 3, and stop us from making some mistakes that our imagination would lead us to make. But I will write more on this later.

      My other blog,, has a couple of more technical articles about how I think these different processes work.

      Thanks for being interested in my work and do please stay in touch.

      Best wishes

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