Introducing Your Fast and Slow Thinking

January 2012

in Self-awareness

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It’s a beautiful sunny day. You’re driving effortlessly along an empty highway. Twenty minutes go by and you hardly remember looking at the road!

An hour later some menacing clouds roll in.Rush-hour traffic is picking up. A storm hits. You pass an accident on the side of the road. Your concentration is being pushed to the max. You feel your anxiety increase and you keep both hands tight on the steering wheel, eyes watching all mirrors and especially the car infront of you. When the storm final passes and the roads clear up, you breath a sigh of relief.

Something in your brain was different in these two situations, but what? At first the driving was effortless, almost entirely automatic, but during the storm it took effort. What changed?

Whether driving in good or bad conditions, flirting, doing your taxes, choosing a career, or making dinner, you’re obviously using your brain. But how does it work?

Recent developments in social and cognitive psychology have given us the opportunity to understand the workings of our brains at a level of detail never had in history! Our brain can be thought of as having two distinct systems, one for fast automatic thinking and the other for slow, deliberate thinking. We use both, to varying degrees, depending on the situation.

System 1 is fast, automatic, “intuitive”, and “instinctive”. It’s what you use when percieving distance, detecting hostility in a voice, recognizing familiar faces, and driving on an empty road.

System 2 is slow, deliberate, “conscious”, and effortful. It’s what you use when looking around for someone with white hair, staying awake in a boring class, and driving in bad weather conditions.

This two-system brain works quite well, quite a lot of the time, but it’s far from perfect.

Making judgements and choices in the face of uncertainty is difficult at the best of times. The very shape of our mental machinery can cause systematic errors called biases that recur in predictable ways, for everyone, including you and me!

Just as physicians use a specialized language to understand and treat symptoms and diseases, so too could we benefit from some specialized language about the brain. We already use words like “intuitive”, “conscious”, “emotional”, and “rational”, but to make the most of the modern scientific understanding of the mind, we need a much richer vocabulary, and we need to unpack the words we already use. This is exactly the aim of Daniel Kahneman‘s latest book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

In the introduction to Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman outlines his main goal: Improve our ability to understand and identify errors in judgement and choice – in others and ourselves – by providing a precise and rich language.

This is primarily done by discussing the workings of our System 1, and the mutual influence between System 1 and 2 – all of which is based on the latest research from social and cognitive psychology.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is organized into five parts.

  • Two Systems: What are the basics of the System 1 and System 2 metaphor? How do they work? What is the language for talking about the mind? How does associative memory (the core of System 1) work?
  • Heuristics and Biases: What heuristics do we use when making judgements? What biases do we have? Why are we so bad at statistical thinking?
  • Overconfidence: Why do we think we understand when we don’t? Why is it so hard to acknowledge ignorance and uncertainty?
  • Choices: How do we make choices? What is their nature and how can they fail? What is prospect theory?
  • Two Selves: Why do we experience and remember things differently? How do these two ‘selves’ work?

Kahneman’s book looks like a great place to start exploring our minds, our errors in judgements and decisions, and more importantly a useful way to talk about them! I’m working through the book right now and writing up summaries of each section. Stay tuned.


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