Solving the Mystery of Thought

thinkingfastThinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman, Daniel)

Daniel Kahneman’s core proposition is that human thought can be modeled as occurring in two distinct modes. He calls them System 1 and System 2, and describes them in detail. System 1 is “fast”, intuitive, all about establishing causal connections; it “jumps to conclusions”, weaves narratives, glosses over details, “sees the big picture”. System 2 kicks in when “slow”, concentrated analytical effort is involved, it tends to look closely at each detail, relies on logic, looks for evidence at every step. Without System 1, we would plod through life staring in wonder at every tree we encounter, knowing every fold in its ancient bark, and unable to visualize the forest it stands in. Without System 2, we would see causal connections and patterns everywhere, and a scowl on the face of the stranger you bump into in the street would be sufficient to convince us that he evades his taxes, like your great-uncle from long ago who had the same expression.

Think of them as two police detectives in a TV show. System 1 is always awake and alert, looking around nervously, judging people compulsively, building back stories and making predictions based on superficial knowledge and little evidence, keeping up a steady monologue with his many preconceived notions. System 2 is usually not paying any attention to any of this. She lets System 1 take the lead in every conversation. Usually System 1’s is the only voice we get to hear, but as soon as something really important or unexpected comes up, System 2 takes over. She shuts System 1 up so that she can think for a second. She uses only facts and rational thought. (System 1 thinks he does, too – and he’s wrong) But while she has all the evidence and inference, and he’s the one just shooting his mouth with little to go on, he’s the super self-confident one, and she is the one wracked with self-doubt. She keeps checking the validity of her logic. Plus, she can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, while System 1 can multi-task without effort. He doesn’t stay silent for too long. His supreme confidence overawes her, and she sometimes ends up meekly looking for ways to corroborate what he’s saying, rather than for data that can independently test the truth in his words. At other times, she does stand up to him: she is, after all, the only one who can influence him. After working at comical cross-purposes through the episode, the partners get their wires straightened out in the last ten minutes: System 1 finally takes a look at System 2’s painstaking analysis, and cries, “Eureka!” and the case is cracked. System 1 takes all the credit, of course. The episode ends with him smugly taking away an erroneous generalization of what happened, as the key lesson from the matter, a generalization that he will use in a future episode. Meanwhile System 2, who did all the hard work, has gone back to ignoring him…

This is clearly the billion-dollar abstract for a blockbuster Netflix original – it is also, according to Kahneman’s  Thinking, Fast and Slow, what goes on in your head every day. Not just at home, with friends or in a shop, but at your job, your field of expertise.

Experts have better situational judgment than others at the thing they do, but their professional instincts are nothing more than pattern recognition, honed over years of experience. Unfortunately, when a complex question is put to us that doesn’t have an exact match with the patterns we have stored away, our System 1 steps in confidently and substitutes a different, simpler pattern that DOES exist in our head, and answers THAT question instead. This happens particularly when we’re not paying full attention: when we’ve put our System 2 to sleep, or to work on some other problem.

This, to me, is where Kahneman’s (and Amos Tversky’s) Two Mode theory gets really exciting: its applicability in cognitive processes, in matters of public policy or private enterprise.  All leadership decision-making is by instinct, a wise man once told me, and all education and experience just ways to hone and fine-tune those instincts. In Kahnemannian terms, they are ways to get System 2 involved in defining the precise rules for pattern matching, so that System 1 can, in the future, make fewer mistakes in picking the right one for the occasion.

It isn’t uncommon for an Economics Nobel Laureate to write a book based on his life’s work. Yet it isn’t common for such a book to be an off-the-charts bestseller. Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has done exactly this. It is a tribute to his simple and jargon-free writing skills, but also to the easy accessibility and universal applicability of his subjects: behavioral economics and cognitive biases of normal people doing everyday things. It’s a slow read, but a fascinating one, and I rapidly became a fan, even while taking a month or more to finish it.