An Ode to Seymour Epstein, Originator of Modern Dual-Process Theory (1925-2016)

An Ode to Seymour Epstein, Originator of Modern Dual-Process Theory (1925-2016)

An Ode to Seymour Epstein, Originator of Modern Dual-Process Theory (1925-2016)

Epstein replaced Freud’s irrational and aggressive unconscious with a more adaptive, yet still emotional, experiential system. According to Epstein, our most primitive emotional experiences should not be repressed, discarded, or controlled, but that they are essential to becoming a fully integrated human being.

Most of you heave heard of Kahneman's dual-process theory. "System 1" and "System 2" have become household names. But far less known is that Kahneman built his theory on the shoulder of a giant: Seymour Epstein. His Cognitive-Experiential Self-Theory (CEST), which has its roots in his 1973 paper "The self concept revisited or a theory of a theory", replaced Freud's irrational and aggressive unconscious with a more adaptive, yet still emotional, experiential system (see this timeline Epstein sent me, that traces the development of his CEST theory in relation to subsequent dual-process theories). According to Epstein, our most primitive emotional experiences should not be repressed, discarded, or controlled, but that they are essential to becoming a fully integrated human being. A large body of evidence since then has supported the idea that the interaction of both experiential thinking and rational thinking is essential for optimal personal growth and creativity. As Epstein told me in personal communication,

“People who are high in both thinking style are Renaissance people. They have the brains of scientists and the sensibilities of poets. In other words they have the positive features of both thinking styles and do not have their negative features because they are kept under control by the other thinking style.”

Last Friday, May 20th, Seymour Epstein passed away peacefully from natural causes (see obituary). He was 91. Epstein's work has had a significant impact on my thinking about human intelligence. Indeed, a major inspiration for coming up with my dual-process theory of intelligence was his 1994 paper, "Integration of the Cognitive and the Psychodynamic Unconscious", which I first encountered while in graduate school. After reading that paper (I will never forget that day), I emailed Epstein. To my delight, he responded favorably, setting off a series of stimulating discussions. I feel as though we formed a special bond, and whenever anyone would talk too much about Kahneman's dual-process theory, I felt a responsibility to mention the roots of it. So naturally in 2014 I was deeply honored when he asked if I would write the foreword to his upcoming book on the implications of his theory for religion and world peace. Here is the foreword I wrote, which I knew he appreciated. It comes from the heart. I share it with you to honor his legacy. Also, you can hear my last chat with him on my podcast, which I released just last week.


RIP, Sy. Thanks for your tremendous influence on the field, and on my life.


I can vividly remember the moment in graduate school when I first encountered Seymour Epstein’s cognitive-experiential self-theory. I was sitting in the courtyard, on a sunny summer day, reading the paper “Integration of the Cognitive and the Psychodynamic Unconscious” (Epstein, 2004). Up to this point in my cognitive psychology training, I had focused on variables associated with cognitive control, such as IQ, working memory, and deliberate expertise acquisition. However, I had increasingly felt as though something big was missing from the cognitive psychology literature.

As I sat there reading about Epstein’s adaptive “experiential system”, which integrated the bland, cool cognitive unconscious discussed by cognitive scientists with the Freudian unconscious that primarily consists of hedonistic, impulsive, associative, and emotional impulses, I felt as though the heavens opened up and I was filled with rapturous joy. Or maybe it was just my experiential system.

Whatever it was, I deeply appreciated Epstein presenting a more balanced view of the costs and benefits of having multiple routes to truth. In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman distinguished between a slow “System 2” and a fast “System 1”. Many readers of that book might not be aware that Kahneman’s distinction between those two systems has its roots in modern dual-process theory, which was pioneered by Seymour Epstein. According to Epstein, the “Experiential System” (which is similar to Kahneman’s System 1) is an automatic, associative learning system that operates adaptively through learning from direct experience. It is a system shared with other higher-order animals. After all, are we not a higher-order animal? Thus, a test of whether an act is governed by the experiential system is whether your dog or cat can do it.

In contrast, Epstein’s “Rational System” (which is similar to Kahneman’s System 2) operates through deliberate, logical analysis that is primarily verbal in nature. Importantly, both systems work in parallel with each other, and both modes of thought have advantages as well as disadvantages depending on the person and the situation. All behavior is considered to be governed by the combined influence of the two systems, with their relative contribution varying from negligible to almost complete influence Epstein’s theory was really important, because cognitive scientists tended to focus on the fallibility of the experiential system (since they mostly focused on rational decision making outcomes), and clinical psychoanalysts tended to focus too much on the irrational, personally detrimental, emotional aspects of the experiential system.

In Epstein’s seminal 1994 paper in the American Psychologist, and since, he has integrated his theory with many different areas of psychology— from individual differences in cognitive style (rational vs. experiential), to clinical applications (e.g., depression), to basic needs and beliefs (need for security, self-esteem, stable and coherent conceptual system of the self), to the development of different modes of cognition across the lifespan. The integration achieved by Epstein’s theory is accomplished mainly by an interesting consideration, which is that although the experiential system is an automatic, associative learning system, what it learns is not just single behaviors, but of greater interest, implicit beliefs and needs, which often are represented outside of awareness.

But Epstein’s greatest integration is this current book. Historically, religion has been the wellspring of the highest euphoria of humanity as well as its darkest acts. Without throwing out the baby with the bathwater, Epstein does a remarkably balanced job highlighting both the good and harmful elements of religious belief. Along the way, Epstein makes clear that the very same experiential processes that may explain pervasive religious belief and some of its darker manifestations may also be the very same system that provides us with love, warmth, and connectedness.

Most importantly, Epstein’s balanced approach makes clear that the answer to peace and understanding is not necessarily the eradication of religion and spirituality altogether. Some modern atheist writers have recently argued for a purely rational approach to life, extolling the merits of evidence and logic. But as Epstein rightly points out, the rational system is only one valid way of thinking. There’s no guarantee that attempting to replace experiential thinking entirely with rational thinking will lead to a more compassionate, caring world. The rational mind can also rely on faulty logic. In fact, ignoring the validity of the experiential system can lead to even more bias, as the rational system often draws from the experiential system to justify its own ends. Second, it is not obvious that replacing religion with a purely rational approach to truth will provide the same source of identity, well being, and sense of purpose, harmony, and peace of mind for all people as religious belief, indeed, has done for some. One of the key contributions of Epstein’s theory is that people differ in their thinking styles. What may provide comfort for one person may not provide comfort at all for another person.

The only guarantee is that—for better and worse— we have at least two modes of information processing that influence us in virtually everything we do. The only hope to creating a more cooperative, caring world may not be getting rid of religious belief, but getting at the fundamental routes of conflict and stereotyping more generally. This book is an important step toward this goal. By revealing the reasons for the compelling nature of religious belief and the ways in which we can use religion constructively to emphasize love, kindness, and unity with the universe, rather than as a source of divisiveness and discord, religion, hopefully, with appropriate modification, can contribute to a better world.

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