Thinking, Fast and Slow

I was browsing the bookshelves in a provincial airport lounge last month.  I really like browsing business books in these sorts of places (as opposed to ordering books from Amazon).  You find things you would not normally find and you can pick them up and read the gist of what the book is about in a very tactile way.  Something Kindle struggles with, I think.

Anyway, I came across a what looked like interesting title “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.  Being one always on the look-out for new Thursday Thoughts, I bought it and have started to read it…

The book is written by Daniel Kahneman who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his pioneering work, developed with Amos Tversky, on decision-making and uncertainty.

Interestingly, there is a quote on the front cover by Steven Pinker which says “(Kahneman is) certainly the most important psychologist alive today”  I thought the blend of economics and psychology would be interesting – and I have not been disappointed!

To begin with, Kahneman’s says that we all have two “systems” of thought.  He adopts terms originally proposed by the psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West referring to two systems in the mind: System 1 and System 2.  Thee labels of System 1 and System 2 are, apparently, widely used in psychology.  For those of you, like me, who are mere lay-folk in the art of psycho-babble, this was news!

Here is an extract from the introduction which outlines the two systems:

“When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices and decides what to think about and what to do.  Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book.”

Kahneman describes System 1 as: “effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2”.

In rough order of complexity, he describes some examples of the automatic activities that are attributed to System 1:

  • Detect that one object is more distant than another
  • Orient to the source of a sudden sound
  • Complete the phrase “bread and…..”
  • Make a “disgust face” when shown a horrible picture
  • Detect hostility in a voice
  • Answer to 2 + 2 = ?
  • Read words on large billboards
  • Drive a car on an empty road
  • Find a strong move in chess (if you are a chess master)
  • Understand simple sentences
  • Recognise that a “meek and tidy soul with a passion for detail” resembles and occupational stereotype

The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: the require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn way.  Here are some examples:

  • Brace for the starter-gun in a race
  • Focus attention on the clowns in the circus
  • Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room
  • Look for a woman with white hair
  • Search memory to identify a surprising sound
  • Maintain a faster walking speed than is natural for you
  • Monitor the appropriateness of your behaviour in a social situation
  • Count the occurrences of the letter  a in a page of text
  • Tell someone your phone number
  • Park in a narrow space (for oct people except garage attendants)
  • Campare two washing machines for overall value
  • Fill out a tax form
  • Check the validity of a complex logical argument

The interesting thing that I have learnt so far is that we use System 1 and System 2 interchangeably throughout the day – and each system performs very important and different functions.  Kahneman’s main thesis is that the intuitive (System 1) often arrives at a conclusion or judgement without the detailed logical evidence for that decision being through by System 2.  There are many examples he gives where this is so – and here is one of them from page 43 of the book:

“A disturbing demonstration of depletion effects in judgement was recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The unwitting participants in the study were eight parole judges in Israel.  They spend entire days reviewing applications for parole.  The cases are presented in random order, and the judges spend little time on each one, an average of 6 minutes. (The default decision is denial of parole; only 35% of requests are approved.  The exact time of each decision is recorded, and the times of the judges’ three food breaks – morning break, lunch and afternoon break – during the day are recorded as well.)

The authors of the study plotted the proportion of approved requests against the time  since the last food break.  The proportion spikes after each meal, when about 65% of requests are granted.  During the two hours or so until the next feeding, the approval rate drops steadily, to about zero just before the meal.  As you might expect, this is an unwelcome result and the authors carefully checked many alternative explanations.  The best possible account of the data provides bad news: tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole.  Both fatigue and hunger probably play a role.”

The book is certainly worth a read and I hope that even these small excerpts have make you think – even if only to understand we all have two systems of thinking that dance to the daily cycles of our more basic animal behaviours – and that, for all important decisions, gut-feel or intuition is not enough and that it is important to engage System 2.  An aspect of thinking I sometimes struggle with!  And it appears I am not alone – since the book highlights this as one of the main causes of human suffering in the world today.

Graphic from: