Thinking About Thinking

One of the joys of reading is that it gives you new templates for thinking.  (I realize this might sound strange, but rather than explain it up front, let me try to define it in a more indirect way.  That way when we do define it, we will have a more robust explanation.)  I think reading can provide us with new templates for thinking in both fiction and non-fiction.  In fiction, we might be confronted with a character who has to make an important ethical decision, and the decision might be something that we strongly agree with or intensely disagree with.  We are thrown back upon ourselves and our own ideas and experiences about what is right and/or wrong, and this forces us to use our own moral reasoning to come to a conclusion about the character.  Or we might meet a character that defies our expectations, that goes against the grain – and then we are surprised, our eyes widen, we are in disbelief, and we think about this character in a new way.

I bring this up because recently my thinking has changed from reading (appropriately) a book about thinking, a wonderful book, called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  I’m not finished yet, but I have already noticed that the book has made me think differently, or more deeply, or even more realistically, about how our minds actually work.  In that sense, it has given me a new template for thinking about how we think and experience the world.  Kanheman, an Israeli-American psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002, argues that there are two kinds of thinking – fast thinking (which he attributes to what he calls, metaphorically, System 1), and slow thinking (which he attributes to System 2).  But when I say Kahneman “argues,” I mean that he uses a lot of fascinating and important evidence from strong psychological studies to make his argument, so it’s not an opinion-piece.  Anyhow, System 1, fast thinking, is that part of our mind that is intuitive, automatic, and impressionable.  For example, if we see a photograph of a man with his eyes narrowed and his mouth turned up into a frown, we know immediately, automatically that this man is unhappy or even angry.  This conclusion on our part, if we can call it a conclusion, is involuntary.  We do not slowly reason it out over time – we simply know, instantaneously, from the photograph, that the man is angry.  That’s System 1.  System 1 also picks up subliminal messages that we are not even aware of consciously (it’s pretty amazing in this way).  For example, if people are looking at a computer screen, engaged in an activity on the screen, and a word flashes instantaneously and so quickly on the screen that they don’t notice it at all consciously, that word is still somehow seen by System 1, and it changes their thought and behavior.  (This process is called “priming,” and if it interests you, I”d really suggest you read the book!)  If this process sounds crazy, scary, wild and/or outrageous, I felt that way, too.  But Kahneman makes a sound argument with good evidence that we are often primed and we’re not even aware of it – for example, voters who are undecided before they vote are more likely to vote for school levees if the voting happens in a school.  He has so many examples like this that are kind of shocking, because it suggests the power of context, contexts that we don’t even think about.

System 2 is our slow thinking.  When we meet with something like

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and we have to reason it out, slowly and deliberately, then we are using System 2.  It is the part of our mind that is slow and rational and logical, as well as able to be skeptical and not believe everything that is said.

But the most interesting thing about this model of the mind is the way the two systems interact.  For example, if we are presented with an image frequently over time, System 1 is likely to like that image, because it is familiar, and because it doesn’t cause cognitive strain.  This might explain how people can be happy with authoritarian leaders, because they are exposed to images of these leaders frequently over time.  But it takes System 2 to come in and question the legitimacy of the image, to be skeptical about it, and therefore to kind of reroute System 1 into a more logical frame of mind.  (But often, as Kahneman points out, System 2 is lazy, and it takes effort to think slowly and deliberately.)  We often make important decisions using System 1, and often they are correct, though sometimes we could benefit from using System 2.

I’m not quite done with the book, but it has been such a fascinating read so far.  Kahneman is a really good and lucid writer, and he’s able to make difficult concepts understandable – he’s a great communicator.  He also says, at the beginning of the book, that System 1 is the hero of the book, so I hope I haven’t made it sound that System 1 is only gullible and likely to be duped.  System 1 also is the part of the mind that sees coherence and causality in things (even if the coherence or causality is not really there!).  So for anyone looking for a really great book on psychology, that provides new ways of thinking about thought, and therefore new ways of thinking about how our minds work, I heartily recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow.  It has the power to give us new templates for thinking because it gives us a strong and evidence-based framework for conceptualizing the mind.

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Daniel Kahneman