Second-order Thinking

Published on Aug 14, 2020

Second-order thinking is a tool you can use to help you make better decisions. It is sometimes known as second-level thinking.

Understand that things are not always as they appear. When a problem surfaces, we often unknowingly create another problem while solving the first one. As humans, we also tend to make biased decisions and can be easily affected by external influences such as our peers (much more than we think).

The term was coined by Howard Marks in his book The Most Important Thing. In it houses his investment philosophies and how to navigate the complex, perilous financial world.

First-order thinking is immediate and often reactive. Often people stop short at the first order. For example, I am hungry, there I will eat the first thing I see.

Second-order thinking requires deliberate thought in terms of consequences, time, and interactions. If you're hungry, you might wait until you see something more nutritious to eat.

Second-order thinkers often ask themselves, "And then what?". If I ate the first thing I see, what are the consequences? I might be full for now, but it isn't healthy and I may feel terrible afterwards.

Second-order thinking asks for us to examine the long-term consequences of our decisions.

First-order thinking is also very easy. Most people can come to the same conclusions.

Second-order thinking is hard.

In fact, the ability to think through problems to the third, fourth or nth order, is a powerful tool that can help you be more aware of the consequences of your actions.


First-level decision outcome: Good or bad. (Good)

Second level decision outcome: Good or bad (Bad)

Third level decision outcome: Good or bad. (Bad)

You can see from the above how the first good decision was not so good after all.

Another example related to the recent pandemic:

First-level - Closing businesses: Bad

Second-level - reduces transmission of virus: Good

Third-level - helps healthcare system: Good

How can we train ourselves to put second-order thinking to good use?

1) ask yourself, "and then what?"

2) ask yourself, do you need to make this decision so quickly?

3) think through time. What could the consequences look like in 10 minutes, 10 months or 10 years? Or how would you feel about it in this time frame?

4) write it down like the above example, as far as you can go to calibrate your thinking.

5) think ahead in terms of systems, human interactions (groups/individuals that can be affected) and time

Perhaps what you thought could happen would not, but at the very least you made a more informed decision.

Forcing yourself to go above first-order thinking will help you consider the unwanted effects of your choices.