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May 1, 2023 • 5 min read • Continuing the Conversation • Second-Order Thinking
Synthesis Teams

SECOND-ORDER THINKING: Continuing the Conversation with Your Student

Rewiring your child’s brain.
Daniel Kahneman’s research shows that by default, 98% of our thinking is driven by spontaneous reactions while 2% involves Second-Order Thinking. For much of human history our survival depended on making decisions quickly — now these processes are hard-wired into our brains. Anticipating second-order consequences requires an intentional mindset shift, which takes time and effort.
We make 35,000 decisions a day.
We can’t employ second-order thinking for all of them. Help your child identify which decisions can be safely left to first-order thinking (stairs or elevator?), and which will benefit from second-order thinking (renovating the kitchen). Introduce the concept of a planning horizon. How long will you live with the consequences of your decision? The next twenty minutes, two months, or ten years?

There's also value in applying second-order thinking processes to short-term, low-risk decisions as a mental exercise. This is a low-stakes way to build the mental muscle of second-order thinking and can inform our first-order thinking when we come across a similar decision again.
Try these activities to practice at home:
Make a flowchart.
Take any decision your child needs to make (even an inconsequential one) and make a flowchart with them that shows each option and the likely consequences of that option. Continue this process for another layer or two and you’re left with somewhere between 5-10 downstream consequences of your initial choice. Evaluate those consequences, rather than only the superficial first-order consequences, when making the choice.
Catch me if you can.
The goal of this game is for your child to predict the next position of your token on a grid-based board. You can use an empty chess board or a hand-drawn grid for this game.

How to Play: Each player places a token on the board. During each round, both players move their tokens. Your child's objective is to guess the position of your token in the next round by pointing to a square and saying, "You'll be here."

Parent Movement Rules (keep these hidden from your child):
Increase the challenge by having your child predict your token's position two rounds ahead instead of one.
Real world case studies.
A quick search can provide dozens of examples of decision-makers failing to account for second-order consequences. One of the most famous is the Cobra Effect.

In colonial India, the British government worried about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi, and so instituted a financial reward for every dead snake brought to officials. What do you think happened next? What were the first- and second-order consequences of the decision? How could the government have foreseen these consequences?

Can your child find real world “case studies” from their own life of first-order thinking in action?