Case Studies

Thinking, Fast and Slow: What Does Kahneman’s Theory Mean for Copywriting?

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Our attention spans are getting shorter. So what does this mean for copywriting? How can we make sure, as writers, marketeers and brand owners, that we’re capturing our consumers’ attention and keeping them engaged for long enough to deliver our message? We’re going to dive into the world of Behavioural Economics to explore just that.

Our attention spans are getting shorter.

That’s the word on the street, isn’t it?

You may even have heard that we’ve actually dropped behind goldfish; with our eight-second attention span, compared to their nine.

But this much perpetuated rumour may be little more than hearsay.

Instead: one study claims our attention spans are simply evolving, rather than dwindling.

They are evolving to help us cope with the onslaught of messaging we encounter every day; the abundance of content transmitted, across multiple media and channels.

We’ve evolved to become more selective with our focus.

We simply don’t have the time or energy to spend reading and interpreting communication which doesn’t serve us.

So what does this mean for copywriting?

How can we make sure, as writers, marketeers and brand owners, that we’re capturing our consumers’ attention and keeping them engaged for long enough to deliver our message?

We’re going to dive into the world of Behavioural Economics to explore just that.

Try to stick around; it’s going to get interesting!

To start with, humans have two systems of thinking

A heavily revered psychologist, economist and Nobel Prize winner, named Daniel Kahneman, theorised that humans have two ways of thinking: System 1 and System 2.

He wrote about this in his international best-selling book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’; if Behavioural Economics quickens your heart rate (as it does mine!) then this is definitely a title you should put on your reading list.

Put simply: Kahneman’s book describes these two ways of thinking as…

System 1: fast, intuitive, immediate

System 2: slow, rational, considered

Whilst we tend to dip into both systems of thinking throughout the day, us — simple — humans are much more content to remain in System 1. It’s far less demanding on the brain; using less time and energy to process.

We will push ourselves into System 2 thinking if we have to — if we’ve got to make a difficult business decision, or are planning a particularly strenuous piece of writing, for example.

But as this is more demanding on the brain; we’d really rather not.

When we’re plodding along productively, System 1 has taken control. We move instinctually, think very little about the decisions we make. You could say we are in a state of Flow, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it.

(That’s the last of the difficult-to-pronounce names for this article, I promise!)

Even processes that were effortful — requiring System 2 thinking — once over, can easily be led by System 1 once we’re comfortable with that action.

My favourite analogy to describe this: driving a car.

Do you remember your first few driving lessons? Sweating palms gripping the wheel; rigidly stuck at “ten and two”? Can you recall how often you checked every mirror? And how a constant eye on the speedometer made you feel safe?

Flash forward to now: when was the last time you drove the final few miles home, only to pull up on your drive and think, “Huh… I can’t remember those last ten minutes at all!”. It happens all the time, doesn’t it?

During that drive, did you check your mirrors? Or the speedometer? Were your hands even on wheel?

Yes, of course; just not consciously.

That’s because, whilst System 2 was required to learn to drive, the action of driving — now that it is second nature to you — can be done in System 1.

Okay, so how does this relate to copywriting?

If the human attention span is evolving to be more selective with its focus, you could argue that it’s pushing out the need for System 2 processing; doing away with rational, considered message decoding, and only allowing for instant, easy comms to get through.

So does that mean that (as copywriters have been debating for decades) that long copy is truly dead?

And what about even short copy? Do humans even want to read marketing messages anymore?

Before you panic and run off to find a new line of work: we’re here to say that copy — long, short or anywhere in between — is not dead, or even dying.

What we will say, though, is as copywriters we need to know how to use System 1 and System 2, to make our copy stronger.

Copywriting for System 1: how to intuitively convey your message

Delivering a point quickly and easily is crucial, especially if you’re writing for the web, or other digital media like apps.

Think of the way you write landing page copy: lead with a clear benefit.

Website visitors don’t want to spend time scrolling around, reading tidbits of info, to find out if a service can truly help them.

You hit them upfront with the product benefits, and they’ll intuitively decide to follow your call-to-action, or not.

Check out this example from Mailchimp. It couldn’t be more straight to the point, could it?

“Build your brand. Sell more stuff. Send better email”.

Benefit; benefit; benefit.

Your System 1 way of thinking is allllll over that. No need to think twice; Mailchimp seems like a service that will make your business prosper.

This kind of copywriting also comes into its own in email subjects too — where you want to grab the receiver’s attention, and avoid being sent to the trash box right away.

A well-timed email, with a killer, intuitive subject line isn’t one to be ignored.

Take this, from Eater Boston (a local Boston food and events guide):

Sent, 6.45pm on a Wednesday: “Where to Drink Beer Right Now”.


This snippet of copy shows an implicit understanding of its readership. And, in return, appeals to their subconscious desires.

But System 1 isn’t just for short copy. No, no!

Copywriters can still cater for System 1 in longer forms of content too.

When writing a longer piece of copy, techniques like front loading your sentences and grease-sliding will allow your reader to effortlessly glide through the content you’ve written.

Copywriting for System 2: a place for emotion to take centre stage

Ah, the 60s.

The Mad Men effect has romanticised the advertising industry during this coming of age period. Whilst I was studying Copywriting at university, I’d have given anything to hop in a time-machine to the dizzy days of Don Draper.

Sure, HBO’s award-winning show may have used a little creative license of its own. But one thing is true about advertising in the 60s: they sure knew how to write long copy.

Arguably the most prolific copy from the era — DDB’s Volkswagen campaign — stopped readers in their tracks… by confusing them.

Not only were audiences not used to ad men focusing (albeit jokingly) on a product’s limitations, but often the copy headlines made very little sense: until you read on.


Say what? That’s… a car? What’s a lemon got to do with anything?

Three columns of copy later, right in the last sentence, the punchline is delivered: “We pluck the lemons; you get the plums”.

Lemon is (or was) car-fanatic lingo for an unreliable car. Whereas a plum is something desirable.

From intriguing headline, through to trend-bucking copy, and a play on words in the punchline: the ad really makes you think. It demands that System 2 be brought into play.

But consider for a moment where this ad would have been printed: a magazine or newspaper, a media picked up to be consumed from back to front.

Not like the typical ad space we’ve got in the 21st Century, is it

So, where can System 2 get its time in the spotlight today?

We see it more, now, on bus stops and in tube stations: places where readers have time to kill. Like this, from eve:

We also see it on packaging.

The rise of innocent’s chat-vertising approach feeds off of System 2 engagement; holding a reader’s attention for long enough to deliver not just a list of product benefits, but to wholeheartedly communicate the brand’s playful personality and values.

What System 2 does today is what it did back in Don Draper’s day too: it tells a story, it elicits emotion

And that emotion can really drive sales.

When VW first arrived in the US, it was struggling to shake free of the skeletons in its closet.

By February 1972 — following a string of outstanding DDB VW campaigns — the 15,007,034th Beetle rolled off the assembly line.

In achieving this, the VW Beetle surpassed the Ford Model T to become the single most successful automobile in history.

Crowds didn’t flock to buy a Beetle because of its dodgy chrome strip or teeny-tiny boot. The car sold millions of models, because of the unexpected emotion its System 2 copy engendered

And emotion is still just as important in a digital world; if not even more sought after by consumers. Readers are still open to being entertained, for a short while, by some killer long form copy

So, System 1 and System 2 have relevance today. Both have a role in convincing a reader your copy does serve them.

It’s up to you — and the brands you work with — how you do that.

It’s not a case of either-or; it’s when and how

Most brands won’t need to choose between using System 1 or System 2 in their copy, because there’s a time and place for both across your marketing mix

Remember System 1 — fast, intuitive, immediate — where your copy should make readers act, such as in a call-to-action, or homepage copy

Remember System 2 — slow, rational, considered — where you want to connect on a more involved, emotional level.

Sounds easy, right?

If this article has simply whet your appetite for more Behavioural Economics advice, or you’re feeling like you need a helping hand to shape your copy, get in touch with Scribly today.

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