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Monday, September 7, 2015

Fast and Slow Thinking

Cousin Vinnie needs to read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. We all should.

The key distinction Kahneman makes is, as the title suggests, between thinking fast which is System 1 thinking or what he calls "intuition," and thinking slow which is more effortful and reasoned.

System 1 is a jump to conclusion based upon previous experience, judgments, and habits. It is very useful for driving a car, simple math, confronting a dangerous person, and lots of other situations requiring a snap decision. It sure helps System 1 thinking if we have been well prepared, broadly experienced, i.e. an expert. But even then we often make mistakes if we don't have time and energy for System 2 thinking.

System 2 is a reflection on the conclusion jumped to in System 1. It requires time, that is, attention, intention, retention, maybe even detention, but for sure tension with one's own judgments. It is what we often call critical thought and action.

System 1 relies on the habitual, the emotional, and the unconscious. It leads to stereotypes which are sometimes true but so often in error or what we call rash judgments or prejudice. The decisions of System 1 come out of implicit frames, narratives, and rules that we have imbibed often without recognizing them. Kahneman explores all the "heuristics," "biases," and "cognitive illusions" of System 1 thinking and they are legion. They lead us to faulty judgments and decisions in business, politics, and economics that often endanger our world and our species and are doing so today. The biggest failing is not to recognize and accept that these heuristics are always operating in our head. These lead to overconfidence, mob action, terror, cruelty, and self destruction. For example, by accepting that capitalism is a rational process creates the myth of the "Econs," those that think the market is rational and free with all people acting in their self interest.

System 2 is not necessarily a corrective. It can be industrious and so what we usually call "thoughtful" leading to the "examined life." But it is often quite lazy and simply labors to provide rationalizations to what we have already concluded in System 1. It goes for "cognitive ease" in which System 1 unconscious factors are not recognized, but merely confirmed.

By seeing it in Cousin Vinnie I hope to also recognize it in myself. Cousin Vinnie just passes out judgments, usually without fact-checking them, that confirm his already formed opinions. He does not recognize the racism that through our institutions shapes all of our decisions in the US especially, but perhaps everywhere with our fear of strangers and perceived need for classes lower than ourselves.

He bases his judgments on his own traumatic experiences. For example, he took over his fathers business and tried to expand rapidly by getting a huge government contract. And he failed to make a go of it for which he blamed the unions and government (even though there are many examples of entrepreneurs like Ross Perot and Mitt Romney getting superrich through government contracts). He is against Mexican immigration because he correlates the decline of his middle class with the influx of Mexican workers in California and because he saw some Mexicans trying to get benefits that he felt he didn't have. He certainly has not considered thoughtfully the role that immigrants play in revitalizing the American economy. He would rather rely on stereotypes which he gets by watching one source for news and reading only what fits with his already determined judgments.

A lazy System 2 engages in name, shame, and blame tactics which is typical of the unexamined life. But seeing the splinter in Cousin Vinnie's eye, am I neglecting the beam in my own? How do I make sure that I am questioning my judgments and am attentive to other ways of seeing the world?

I pose a question of Kahneman: Is there a System 3 Thinking?

I say, yes. If System 2 is reflection on what is being thought, System 3 is a reflection on reflection or what philosophers call "secondary reflection." It is what Kahneman is doing and what I am trying to do in these essays.

By probing further into the ways of thinking, by identifying the biases and illusions that influence us and make us think that we know, we are able to advance our thinking and action to new levels. This takes more than the attention, critique, and openness to change that System 2 makes possible. It takes an understanding of our understanding, a retreat into the solitude of meditation for creative daydreaming even sometimes into seemingly purposeless irrelevancies; and it takes study and experiment by putting our ideas out in action to be confronted by others. I argue that it also takes a sort of universal empathy in which all paths and viewpoints can be appreciated and integrated.


[BTW, some have asked me if Cousin Vinnie exists. Yes he does, but that is not his name. He is really a good guy; and he has taught me a lot.]

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