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Second-Order Thinking

Last updated: 4 April 2023

Second-Order Thinking illustration
Consider the long-term effects of a decision

Second-order thinking is a concept used by strategic thinkers and philosophers to consider problems and situations from different perspectives. It goes beyond the first-order questions of what, why, and how to consider if and when. This type of thinking helps us anticipate future events and evaluate complex situations for better decision-making.


Second-order thinking is an idea proposed by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in his 1929 book Process and Reality. He suggested that philosophy should focus on second-level questions like “What is the relationship between two things?” rather than just focusing on first-level questions like “What are the properties of each thing?” Whitehead believed this thinking would foster more productive conversations on topics like religion, ethics, art, and science.

How it works

Second-order thinking is about taking a step back from a situation or problem to look at it from different angles. It starts with recognizing that there are multiple points of view and then considering what each perspective might be. For example, when faced with an ethical dilemma, second-order thinking allows us to consider our moral standards and those who may be affected by our decisions.

How to use it

When using second-order thinking, it’s essential to understand both sides of an argument before making decisions. You can gather information from multiple sources, ask questions that challenge your assumptions, and consider potential consequences before jumping into action. Additionally, it’s essential to be open-minded when using second-order thinking so you can see all sides of an issue without bias getting in the way.


A great example of second-order thinking is Howard Marks’ strategy for investing in the stock market. Marks believes that investors should go beyond simply looking at the current price of a stock before investing; they should also consider factors like economic trends, sector performance, expected growth rates, and competition within the industry. By taking a step back from their immediate decisions, investors can make more informed choices about where to invest their resources for maximum returns over time.

Another example is in medical ethics when doctors have tough decisions about life-or-death treatments for their patients. A doctor practicing second-order thinking would consider patient autonomy, potential benefits vs. risks, and societal values when making decisions instead of clinical evidence alone.


  • Second-order thinking takes an issue or problem beyond its surface-level components by considering multiple points of view.
  • Gather information from multiple sources before making decisions.
  • Be open-minded and consider potential consequences.


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