Thinking Slowly About Daniel Kahneman

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kahnemanYou know you really should read a book when you find several people you know from completely different contexts all independently saying you’d like it. And when the most recent recommendation comes just before a long journey, you’re primed to make an impulse purchase when you see that book in a shop at the airport. My friends know me well: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow turned out to be exactly the kind of book I’d enjoy reading, and then mulling over repeatedly.

My purpose today is to organise my thoughts about his central model of two modes of thinking referenced in his title: the fast, intuitive, associative System 1 and the slow, effortful and painstaking System 2. There may be future posts where I work through the implications of this model in various contexts - principally the mechanisms of unconscious bias and the process of skill acquisition - but before I start to untangle those, I need to get my thoughts straight about the underlying concepts.

So, Kahneman’s basic premise is that people have two fundamental modes of thinking, and that understanding the distinctions between them gives us insight into - and thus a degree of defence against - our most common forms of cognitive error. (You may be getting resonances with Rolf Dobelli’s ideas here; indeed I note that the friend who recommended that one to me was also one of the people who recommended the Kahneman.)

What Kahneman calls ‘System 1’ provides our automated responses to living in the world. It maintains an internal image of how the world is (updated through the process of surprise) and handles all our routine interactions with our environments. System 1 is what allows us to function. It works through associative memory: when one item in memory is triggered, it activates other concepts or categories that are contiguous in our memory. This contiguity is created by both personal experience (things that happen(ed) together in our lived environment) and by culture (things that are routinely associated through our shared discourses).

System 1 thinking is thus both efficient and lazy. It involves no conscious cognitive intervention, and thus feels both effortless and pleasurable. It makes assumptions for us so fast we haven’t even noticed we are jumping to conclusions, and so produces the obvious - rather than necessarily the right - result. This is the mode in which creativity happens, where we feel psychologically safe; by the same token it is where gullibility lies, since it lacks the any vigilance over the self.

System 2 thinking provides our conscious reflection and cogitation upon the world. It is deliberate and controlled, and makes high demands on working memory. This is the mechanism by which we can check the assumptions of System 1; it gives us the capacity to self-monitor and forestall System 1’s intuitively plausible but wrong responses. System 2’s activity thus feels grumpier and more effortful; indeed, experimental psychology has shown that the brain uses more glucose during this kind of cognitive exertion. This is the mode in which we exercise our power for analysis and critique, where we exert self-control and discipline.

Clearly, System 2 is far too resource-intensive to use for handling all the impressions and actions we need to cope with on a daily basis. Indeed, it is this resource-intensity that leads to decision fatigue. So, in the face of hard decisions, we’ll often let System 1 substitute an easier question rather than squander our scarce attentional resources on a tricky one. The problem is, we often don’t notice that we do this. Much of Kahneman’s book, after the initial exposition of his model, investigates the specific mental shortcuts most people (including those who should know better) in the face of statistics.

On the bright side, increasing skill reduces the energy demands of a task. We knew this anyway: when you do something for the first time, it takes time to process and coordinate what you’re doing, but repetition produces fluency. This is what practice is for.

But now I’m starting to stray into the questions of skill acquisition, so I’ll leave a more detailed consideration of what Kahneman’s model can teach us about that for another day.

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