Thinking, Fast And Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Why is it that sometimes we behave rationally and go through a thorough thought process before making decisions, while at other times we act in an impulsive way? How can we combine a strong intuition with rigorous analysis for decision-making?

Understanding how our mind works is fascinating given the complexities of our brain. However, it is also necessary in order to be able to take good advantage of it, to put it to our service and influence how we behave. In his outstanding book Thinking, Fast And Slow, Daniel Kahneman does a remarkable job at addressing those issues and more. Kahneman is a Senior Scholar at Princeton University, Emeritus Professor of Public Affairs at Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.

The author introduces the complicated dynamics that work in our brain with a didactic metaphor: he talks about Systems 1 and 2 in the mind. System 1 is fast, emotional and intuitive, and it operates in a semi-automatic way whenever facing familiar situations. System 2 is slower and more rational. It weighs the pros and cons before making a decision, or processes information in order to solve complex problems. Kahneman describes the capabilities and the faults of fast thinking and explains the deep influence of intuitive impressions on our behavior.

I describe the mental life by the metaphor of two agents, called System 1 and System 2, which respectively produce fast and slow thinking. I speak of the features of intuitive and deliberate thought as if they were traits and dispositions of two characters in your mind. In the picture that emerges from recent research, the intuitive System 1 is more influential than your experience tells you, and it is the secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make.

Some examples of the automatic activities performed by System 1 include, according to Kahneman, “answer 2 + 2”, “drive a car on an empty road” and “complete the phrase ‘bread and …’”On the other hand, “park in a narrow space”, “compare the two washing machines for overall value” or “check the validity of a complex logical argument” are activities performed by System 2.

When we are awake, both systems are usually active. System 1 runs automatically and generates impressions and suggestions for System 2. On the other hand, System 2 rationally analyzes these suggestions to arrive at a logical conclusion. System 2 comes into play when there is a situation that System 1 is unfamiliar with. So it may seem as if System 2 was the leader or the boss, right?

However, System 2 also has a tendency to slip into a comfort zone, and get lazy. In this process called “ego depletion”, it accepts what System 1 tells it without question and this is when our mind starts playing tricks on us. System 1 can oversimplify and pass this information on to System 2, which believes it to be correct.

System 2 is mobilized when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer. (…) System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains. In that world, lamps do not jump, cats do not bark, and gorillas do not cross basketball courts. (…) Surprise then activates and orients your attention: you will stare and you will search your memory for a story that makes sense of the surprising event. System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior – the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night. (…) in summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.

System 1 is impulsive and intuitive; System 2 is capable of reasoning, and it is cautious, but at least for some people it is also lazy. We recognize related differences among individuals: some people are more like their System 2; others are closer to their System 1.

Kahneman uses an abbreviation – “WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is)” to explain how System 1 jumps to conclusions based on limited evidence. In an easy, conversational style, the author encourages the reader to understand how these two systems work together. By doing this, we can benefit from slow thinking and not fall into the traps often laid out by purely intuitive impressions.

Understanding the workings of the brain and our thought process is a fascinating subject, and a necessary one if we want to put our behaviors, actions, and likes in context, and understand ourselves and those who surround us better.

Thinking, Fast And Slow is an insightful book, located at the intersection between neuroscience and psychology. It is filled with plenty of interesting concepts and well-found examples that allow for a good understanding of how our mind works. Are you ready to put your System 2 to work and go through Kahneman’s masterpiece?

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