In this two part blog we will look at the 'Thinking fast and slow' book by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, which has a significant contribution to a new understanding of the human mind. We now have a better understanding of how decisions are made, why certain judgment errors are so common and how we can improve ourselves.
Of two minds: how our behavior is determined by two different systems – one automatic and the other considered.
There is a compelling drama going on in our minds, a filmlike plot between two main characters with twists, dramas and tensions. These two characters are the impulsive, automatic, intuitive System 1, and the thoughtful, deliberate, calculating System 2. As they play off against each other, their interactions determine how we think, make judgments and decisions, and act.
System 1 is the part of our brain that operates intuitively and suddenly, often without our conscious control. You can experience this system at work when you hear a very loud and unexpected sound. What do you do? You probably immediately and automatically shift your attention toward the sound. That’s System 1.
This system is a legacy of our evolutionary past: there are inherent survival advantages in being able to make such rapid actions and judgments.
System 2 is what we think of when we visualize the part of the brain responsible for our individual decision-making, reasoning and beliefs. It deals with conscious activities of the mind such as self-control, choices and more deliberate focus of attention.
For instance, imagine you’re looking for a woman in a crowd. Your mind deliberately focuses on the task: it recalls characteristics of the person and anything that would help locate her. This focus helps eliminate potential distractions, and you barely notice other people in the crowd. If you maintain this focused attention, you might spot her within a matter of minutes, whereas if you’re distracted and lose focus, you’ll have trouble finding her.
As we'll see in the following part, the relationship between these two systems determines how we behave.
The lazy mind: how laziness can lead to errors and affect our intelligence To see how the two systems work, try solving this famous bat-and-ball problem:
A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The price that most likely came to your mind, $0.10, is a result of the intuitive and automatic System 1, and it’s wrong! Take a second and do the math now. Do you see your mistake? The correct answer is $0.05. What happened was that your impulsive System 1 took control and automatically answered by relying on intuition. But it answered too fast.
Usually, when faced with a situation it can’t comprehend, System 1 calls on System 2 to work out the problem, but in the bat-and-ball problem, System 1 is tricked. It perceives the problem as simpler than it is, and incorrectly assumes it can handle it on its own. The issue the bat-and-ball problem exposes is our innate mental laziness. When we use our brain, we tend to
use the minimum amount of energy possible for each task. This is known as the law of least effort. Because checking the answer with System 2 would use more energy, our mind won’t do it when it thinks it can just get by with System 1.
Autopilot: why we are not always in conscious control of our thoughts and actions
Such priming not only affects the way we think but also the way we act. Just as the mind is affected by hearing certain words and concepts, the body can be affected as well. A great example of this can be found in a study in which participants primed with words associated with being elderly, such as “Florida” and “wrinkle,” responded by walking at a slower pace than usual. Incredibly, the priming of actions and thoughts is completely unconscious; we do it without realizing. What priming therefore shows is that despite what many argue, we are not always in conscious control of our actions, judgments and choices. We are instead being constantly primed by certain social and cultural conditions. For example, research done by Kathleen Vohs proves that the concept of money primes individualistic actions.
People primed with the idea of money - for example, through being exposed to images of money - act more independently and are less willing to be involved with, depend on or accept demands from others. One implication of Vohs’s research is that living in a society filled with triggers that prime money could nudge our behavior away from altruism. Priming, just like other societal elements, can influence an individual's thoughts and therefore choices, judgment and behavior – and these reflect back into the culture and heavily affect the kind of society we all live in.
Snap judgments: how the mind makes quick choices, even when it lacks enough information to make a rational decision
Imagine you meet someone named Ben at a party, and you find him easy to talk to. Later, someone asks if you know anybody who might want to contribute to their charity. You think of Ben, even though the only thing you know about him is that he is easy to talk to. In other words, you liked one aspect of Ben’s character, and so you assumed you would like everything else about him. We often approve or disapprove of a person even when we know little about them.
Our mind’s tendency to oversimplify things without sufficient information often leads to judgment errors. This is called exaggerated emotional coherence, also known as the halo effect: positive feelings about Ben’s approachability cause you to place a halo on Ben, even though you know very little about him. But this is not the only way our minds take shortcuts when making judgments. There is also confirmation bias, which is the tendency for people to agree with information that supports their previously held beliefs, as well as to accept whatever information is suggested to them.