Saturday, June 17, 2017

Thinking, Fast and Slow I

This bestseller by Daniel Kahneman, published in 2011, covers psychological research from the last few decades, focusing on human cognition. The title refers metaphorically to two different systems that the human brain uses to process various kinds of information. Fast thinking, or System 1, pertains to situations which are appraised almost immediately, without reflection, in an intuitive or unconscious manner. Slow thinking, or System 2, pertains to situations which require a conscious analytical process in order to make an assessment. There may be some physical basis regarding the places in the brain where these functions occur, but that has not been the emphasis. As far as I've read, much of the discussion has been about the interplay between the two systems.

The model presented provides a realistic description of how everyone organizes reality and goes about their day. The System 1 method is partly instinctive and partly experiential. When new situations arise, the human brain is incapable of conducting a detailed analysis each time, and through an evolutionary process we are hard-wired to react to some experiences with no thought or hesitation. Humans possess an innate ability to interpret, for example, facial expressions and to generalize from past experiences, presumably because reacting more or less correctly rather than not reacting at all was once essential to survival and still is to some extent. System 1, as I interpret it, is a shortcut process which seems to occupy our awareness most of the time. System 2, as I interpret it, is the cumbersome process that includes real thinking, and most of us are not doing it most of the time. Kahneman describes the balance between the two systems that arises due to the limited capacity of System 2 to produce timely results.

It is easy to recognize these processes in yourself and others. My father seemed very much a System 1 person: he did everything extremely quickly, from speaking to reading to doing mental arithmetic, but he was not reflective, and in the long run his intuitive side, which seemed to suppress System 2's thoroughness, may have led to his downfall. My former philosophy professor, Roger Gustavsson, who died last year, was almost exclusively a System 2 person; to him, everything was part of a complex, convoluted problem that he couldn't quite work out. During the last few years of my correspondence with him, I was unable to fully communicate to him some of the ideas that I've presented on this blog, because his frame of reference for everything, perhaps including his personal life, was analytic philosophy. This tendency made him the odd man out when he was a member of a committee, because his method of analysis did not accord with that of anyone else. It has occurred to me that humans, as a survival matter, have to act with incomplete information, or else die. Thus, System 1 is closer to the life we know. If children had always relied exclusively on System 2 observation and logical analysis for making decisions, surely many of them would not have reached adulthood or produced offspring: their lives would have been spent in limbo deciding what to do next.

Researchers have devised numerous tests to measure how these systems work, and although System 1 generally gets the job done, it is also haphazard and frequently inaccurate. It exists mainly because System 2 can't carry much of a load. System 1 encourages us to think that whatever is familiar is probably safe, which is not always the case. It also causes us to overvalue negative experiences, and you can easily identify that in yourself and others. Often people behave with undue caution based on the false assumption that conditions are the same as those which once produced a negative outcome. System 1 is also responsible for causing us to prefer political candidates whose faces have certain shapes. No doubt System 2 has limitations, but, as far as I've read, the only one mentioned is that it's lazy: it tries to send the work back to System 1 whenever possible.

This is a useful and informative book, and I will comment further on it as I progress through it. One criticism I have so far is that, like most of the popular psychology books I've read, everything in it seems obvious. I become amazed that thousands of academics in psychology departments all over the world are conducting research, and that this it all that they can come up with. More urgently, I am concerned that they seem to take little responsibility for the uses to which their findings are put. There is ample evidence now for the existence of various irrational currents in human behavior, and, with the exception of self-help books, the main applications seem to be in economics, resulting in Kahneman's receipt of a Nobel Prize in that field. Economists are often engaged in assisting commercial entities in the pursuit of money, and the research in this book has long been used to influence consumer purchasing decisions. If you have ever wondered why you repeatedly see the same ad for a product that is of no interest to you, thank Kahneman and his colleagues. Beyond economics, it has become commonplace among political operatives to improve their chances of winning elections through the use of similar techniques. A more desirable application for mankind would be the highlighting of the readily observable negative impact of irrational choices on collective human existence. I am, for example, disinclined to support capitalism or democracy, because they currently tend to produce inequality, overpopulation and environmental destruction. Psychologists would provide a better service to us if they suggested ways to improve the current democratic decision-making process, which might reduce the destructive effects of capitalism. Irrational policies may not be an inevitable product of government in a rationally managed future. To expand the application of Kahneman's metaphor, most of the governments in the world are currently operating on System 1 rather than on System 2.

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