Introducing Your Second Self4 minute read

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I recently finished reading Wendy Wood’s Good Habits, Bad Habits and I thought I’d share a little more and introduce you to your own ‘second self’.

‘The world of habit is so self-contained,’ Wood writes, ‘it makes sense to think of it as a kind of second self – a side of you that lives in the shadow cast by the thinking mind you know so well.’

The distinction between these two ‘selves’ will be familiar if you’ve ever read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, where he describes the differences between System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (attention) thinking.

But where Kahneman is resigned to the incorrigibility of human error in System 1, Wendy Wood celebrates the superhuman strengths of our second self and urges us to harmonise our two selves or systems.

This is an idea with a long, if partially forgotten, lineage. In The Principles of Psychology (1890) William James declared:

‘The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.’

Both selves have strengths and weaknesses, but Wendy Wood argues that for too long we have ignored or maligned the second self:

‘If our noisy, egotistical consciousness takes all the credit for the actions of our silent habitual self, we’ll never learn how to properly exploit this hidden resource. Habits will be a silent partner, full of potential energy but never asked to perform to their fullest.’

It’s time we got to know our second selves.

Introducing David and Dave

So I have two selves: isn’t this great news? To get away from total confusion, let’s call them Dave and David.

Until now, David has been the all-conquering, egotistical genius taking the praise for everything this body accomplishes. As far as David is concerned, writing these words is an act of sheer will alone – the finely tuned composition and typing habits of Dave have nothing to do with anything. David is the ego-self, or Kahneman’s System 2.

In contrast, Dave goes about his business quickly, quietly and easily – automatically, in fact. Dave is the second self or Kahneman’s System 1.

We know almost too much about David, so forget him for a minute (he’s throwing a strop already). What, according to the science so far, are Dave’s strengths and weaknesses?

Let’s start with the weaknesses because that’ll keep David happy for a second:

Dave’s Weaknesses

  • Unobservant.
  • Completely thoughtless and utterly uncritical.
  • Heavily dependent on familiar cues, he’s a total fish out of water in even a slightly different context.
  • Can’t react to changing events and will carry on executing the same orders, regardless of whether the result is actually useful any more.
  • Can suck the fun out of anything, even the most exquisite romance, by sheer repetition.
  • Can’t set his own conscious goals.

Doesn’t Dave sound like an idiot? Yes he does, but stop judging and let’s look at his strengths for a second.

Dave’s Strengths

  • Can’t be bribed with rewards. Can’t be punished either.
  • Doesn’t need willpower to resist temptation: simply executes. Almost impossible to distract.
  • Utterly committed to delivering relentlessly, effortlessly, day after day after day, through good times and bad.
  • Cheap to run. Doesn’t guzzle calories like profligate David does.
  • Very chilled. Dave doesn’t panic, worry or ever get confused about what to do
  • Actually thrives in times of stress or when the body is tired, hungry, sleep deprived.
  • Incredibly fast – so fast that action comes before even thought (Dave is Kahneman’s ‘thinking fast’).
  • Waaaaay tougher, stronger and more resilient than weeny David.
  • Highly skilled. It’s Dave who can play guitar, speak pretty good English, chop vegetables with a sharp knife, and ride a bike (although not all at the same time) (yet). Dave can be trained to do almost anything.
  • Makes life feel meaningful (say what? for real – this is Dave’s domain)
  • Although Dave might not set goals initially, it’s Dave who achieves my goals and, through his repeated actions, ends up deciding what I value. Mind blown.

Dave sounds like a total LEGEND!

Not one, but two of Wendy Wood’s studies (2002, 2005) found that 43 percent of our behaviour is automatic. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, then the sooner David lets Dave strut his stuff, the better it’ll be for both (?) of us (!).

As Wendy Wood concludes in Good Habits, Bad Habits, working in harmony with our second self isn’t only more productive, it’s also ‘a simpler, more integrated way to live your life.’

We all live habitually already. Most of us just aren’t aware of it. And because of that, we’re ignoring a big part of who we are and why we do what we do. We’re also ignoring all the many ways we could be doing things better.

One more thing…

If you liked this post, then you’ll almost certainly enjoy my newsletter. You can check out the most recent issue on Substack. See ya there - dc:

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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