I’ve just read Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book, THINKING FAST AND SLOW, which is a summary of Kahneman’s lifetime study on how the mind works.
Kahneman, now in his 80’s, has been called “one of the world’s most influential living psychologists.” His work – which includes things with names like prospect theory, loss aversion, anchoring, separate mental accounting, the representativeness bias and the availability bias — has helped to shape and continues to influence the field of behavioral economics and finance.
For laymen, the book lays out Kahneman’s insights about two often-conflicting systems we humans use for making decisions. The book is written in a clear and engaging style that led to the book becoming an international bestseller in 2011.
I’ll probably go back to read this book several more times. It’ll be a reference book for me, sitting on my shelf.
THINKING FAST AND SLOW is one of those primers that is just chock-a-block full of useful insights that can be applied to regular living. It’s worth more than one visit.
THE TWO “SYSTEMS” OF THOUGHT
In his book, Kahneman builds mind-constructs that delineate and explain the two main ways we humans use our minds to decide how to move in the world. These constructs are based on work from the decades-long collaboration he maintained with another brilliant psychologist, Amos Turyev, whose focus of study was decision-making and judgement. Turyev died in 1996 at the age of 59.
Kahneman sticks labels that he got from psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West on the constructs – System 1 (the automatic system) and System 2 (the effortful system).
As Kahneman explains them, these systems each have inherent strengths and weaknesses. They are available to us at all times. If we can learn how to work with both of them, then we’re likely to reach better decisions than if we rely only on one or the other.
GOING ON AUTOMATIC PILOT
System 1 operates with little or no effort. It’s sort of like breathing. You don’t need to call it up and you don’t have to pay any attention to it.
System 1 is always there, at the ready for action, and it is lightning-fast.
Because of this system of thinking we are all really good at creating a consistent story from the data and the observations we have on hand.
With that story, we can make up ways of walking and directions to take. We can create new things, evoking a Something out of the possibilities that present themselves because we have and believe that story.
This is cool and all, but there does happen to be a downside to it.
With System 1 running, we see what we see, throw in memories of old lessons learned and mix in assorted hints and rumors and allegations we’ve heard from someplace or other to build a logical sort of a story that becomes a platform from where we can launch off in some direction or other.
Kahneman likes to call the underlying mode of this system by the acronym WYSIATI for “what-you- see-is-all-there-is.”
Notice how the picture above is an automatic story-starter. (You can check out the photographer’s story about it by clicking on the caption. Did your story come close?)
In our almost-immediate story-creating, we do tend to ignore sometimes-critical information. After all, if we can construct a logical story from the information we have, why bother to see new facts, figures or ideas? Right?
Rebel-psychiatrist R. D. Laing once famously said, “If I don’t know I don’t know, I think I know. If I don’t know I know, I think I don’t know.” (Read that again. Like much of Laing’s work, it’s confusing but it does make sense.)
The fact that we are so prone to take things at face value does have a bearing on the problem with just running with System 1. When it comes to making decisions, we can be fearless in our ignorance.
In the absence of detailed, accurate knowledge we can construct stories that support our beliefs and act on those beliefs with a confidence that can border on insanity.
Using System 1, you can effortlessly form impressions and generate feelings that can be used to build complex patterns of ideas that engage your interest and influence your decisions. You can even react to a threat before you recognize that it is one. (Sometimes you’re even right.)
The one fly in the soup is this: System 1 is radically insensitive to both the quality and the quantity of information we hold. All it looks for is a coherent, believable story.
It’s the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. We can make totally believable stories with next to no facts. We can even make totally believable stories out of downright lies.
That can be a problem.
Very often in our System 1 parkour-style free-running through life, we neglect to suss out the big drop on the other side of the low wall we’re jumping over and…ouch! Street-pizza happens.
[This awesome 2018 YouTube video, “Late For Work – Parkour Run,” was published by urbanamadei. I figured we needed a break from all the heavy-duty thinking.]
WORKING ON THROUGH SYSTEM 2
Kahneman calls the conscious and deliberative System 2 thinking “effortful.” It is neither automatic nor is it easy.
You would be likely to tap into System 2 thinking when you’re trying to solve one of those durned word puzzles on a math test. Very often these riddles are tricky. The first answer that comes to mind is probably not going to be the right one.
Here’s a cute animated YouTube video published in 2017 by funza Academy, “The Bat and Ball Problem That 50% of Harvard Students Got Wrong.”
As the video points out, we really have to push ourselves to get into the process of System 2 thinking. The mental work involved is deliberate, effortful and orderly.
If you are really grinding on a complex problem, even your body gets involved. Your muscles tense up, your blood pressure rises, your heart rate increases. Your pupils dilate. You stress. It doesn’t stop until you either solve the problem or you give up.
Only the slower System 2 thinking can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps. To activate it and use it, you do have to pay much more attention to what you are doing than when you use the automatic System 1.
Think of an American driving in Europe for the first time. There she goes, driving down what she totally feels is the wrong side of the road. You’d better believe she is paying strict attention to what she is doing, especially if that road gets busy.
The other thing System 2 can do, Kahneman says, is to overrule the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1.
System 2 goes into action when you need to control yourself. When you’ve already made a mistake because of your inattention that requires fixing, you’ll reach for the System 2 thinking. When you need to be logical and rational, System 2 will be there on-call.
System 2 will keep you polite when you’re angry. When you’re driving at night, System 2 helps to keep you alert.
Also, when System 1 runs into difficulty, when tried-and-true solutions to some problem does not work or when you encounter a question for which you have no answer, System 2 can be mobilized to look for new solutions and for better answers.
The biggest problem with System 2 thinking is the urge to keep looking for one more factoid, one more factor, or one more aspect or angle. You can get so caught up in analyzing and philosophizing that you forget to get up off your behind and start doing.
“Paralysis by analysis” sets in and you need to call in System 1 thinking to cut to the chase.
When you get to the point where all the fact-gathering has you in “Park,” you need to dismiss the System 2 thinking and let the System 1 thinking take over again. Otherwise you’re never going to get out of the parking lot.
You take all your new insights and information from the System 2 thinking and you build another story using the System 1 thinking. Then you go.
The following YouTube video, published by The Commonsence in 2018, presents some thoughts on how to work with both of the systems in day-to-day living.
Knowing fast and slow thinking are a part of your mind’s toolbox means that you’ll be able to use them appropriately as needed, it seems to me.
I do recommend Kahneman’s THINKING FAST AND SLOW. It has a plethora of insights and ideas that can help you understand about how you are thinking and why you do that. It can also help you direct your course corrections more consciously.
One thing that Kahneman does not emphasize in the book is the part where you take all the insights you’ve worked so hard to gather using the System 2 explorations and figure out how to sink that new knowledge down into your bones so that the insights become a more permanent part of your System 1 story-making.
That one is the result of doing, repetition and deliberate practice — something athletes, martial artists and Makers of every stripe know is necessary to develop mastery. And that’s a whole other story….
Here’s a poem:
SLOW THINKER LAMENT
This is irritating!
In a world of fast thinkers and pyrotechnic wizards,
Here I am…
Stuck with a mind that dives deep
Looking for crystal caves and other wonders
Under all that surface stuff.
In the alphabet soup of life,
How come everybody else is already
Moving past the letter ‘g’
And I’m still stuck on ‘c’?
This is NOT satisfactory!
They’re doing shrimp tempura,
Gobbling down the pupus, one and all.
Me, I’ve got a kalua pig in the imu.
What’s up with THAT!
By Netta Kanoho
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