The Love-Hate Relationship Between Fast and Slow Thinking

Wednesday, September 18, 2019
Nick Williams

Daniel Kahneman, esteemed psychologist and economist, has carved a career out of writings on human rationality and reaction. Regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the world by publications like The Economist and Foreign Policy Magazine, Kahneman also won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

To make things more interesting, his Nobel win was actually pretty controversial—it’s not very often someone who is not primarily considered as an economist wins arguably the biggest Economics Prize in the world. It’s like when Three Six Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song—not totally unheard of, probably deserving, and yet still managing to freak out all the old squares in the audience.

Controversy aside, in 2011 Kahneman published his best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  You might think that a Nobel-winning economist writing a 500+ page treatise on human judgment and decision-making might be, a little, how should we say it, dry?  (dry is a codeword for boring, btw).

Luckily, you would be wrong.  

Thinking, Fast and Slow is an engaging and insightful culmination of Daniel Kahneman’s theories and research, and it ends up shining a bright light on all of the reasons why we can, at times, sabotage ourselves by doing dumb and short-sighted things.

After reading Kahneman’s theories, next time you’re lying in bed obsessing over all of the cringe-worthy decisions you’ve made throughout your life, you’ll at least be able to say:

“Hey, that wasn’t my fault, it was the fault of System 2 of my brain not taking the initiative to double-check the decisions System 1 made! I’m totally absolved of guilt!” Nice!

And if you haven’t read the book just yet, don’t worry, we’ll explain.

The main overarching question in the book, and in Kahneman’s research in general, is: Why can humans be so dang irrational? Why do we often make decisions that, if we had spent the time to analyze them statistically, we would realize are not the best call?

These questions lead to some other significant examinations:

Are human perception and decision-making inherently flawed? And then, in turn, how does decision-making and cognitive perception affect our happiness?

The two competing systems—and they aren’t Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis

The central framework for Kahneman’s discussions are fast and slow thinking (makes sense based on the title, right?)—or, as he re-labels them in the text, System 1 and System 2.

System 1, aka fast thinking, is essentially the frontlines of your perception and decision-making. It can also be described as superficial, intuition-based and norm-based.  

System 1 governs the immediate reactions and decisions that we take based on the feedback that we receive from perceiving the world around us.

System 2, aka slow thinking, is our analytical consciousness. We use System 2 to work through more complicated tasks, to think about ideas at length, and to flesh out the information retrieved by System 1.

System 1 sketches the outline of the world around us, and System 2 fills in the lines with color.

At first glance, the two systems seem like a match made in heaven—like, an assertive, spontaneous, confident person falling in love with an intelligent, practical and relaxed person— embracing each other’s strengths and helping to support each other’s weaknesses. Sounds like an OKCupid commercial or something, right?

Oftentimes, the two systems do work together very harmoniously. If they didn’t, we would see a lot more people just randomly walking face-first into walls for no reason.

But like many relationships, theirs is flawed, sometimes one-sided, and filled with strange and unhealthy power dynamics.

Who gave System 1 a beer?

System 1 is basically your loose, perhaps arrogant self, lacking inhibition after having had a few drinks at the bar. You are more willing to make decisions or take risks that previously, your self-will or social cues might have prevented you from doing.

Whether it’s a hypothetical or literal intoxication, getting your System 1 “drunk” is basically a way of incapacitating your System 2. Without System 2, you no longer have the ability to truly analyze situations. Instead, you are essentially acting on intuition and ‘what feels right.’    

System 2 is only really called upon when you need something—like your Mom when you were in your early 20s—but that also means that System 1 is making a boatload of executive decisions without really accounting for all of the possible outcomes.

As outlined by Kahneman:

“System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine — usually.”

In most situations, System 2 will take System 1’s interpretations of events as fact, because spending the time to actually examine and debate the findings takes up energy that our mind would rather not spend.  

This is valuable in certain cases where the findings of System 1 are good enough but can be harmful in other cases, such as overcoming bias or prejudice.

We are constantly trying to make causal connections to mirror what our System 1 expects to see in the world—an attempt to replicate what we consider to be “normal.”  

But our System 1 isn’t always comprehensive enough to actually determine causality, and will oftentimes simply jump to the most obvious and practical conclusions. This can lead to errors in judgment. Kahneman calls this “associative coherence”. For example, take a close look at the following sentence:

The man, who was carrying six heavy, overloaded bags of groceries, fell down the stairs of his apartment building and broke his container of nonfat cottage cheese that he bought for some reason.

After reading this sentence, we might automatically assume that the man fell down the stairs because his grocery bags were overloaded and he couldn’t see where he was going. But that is not necessarily the correct answer.

Maybe there was a discarded banana peel at the top of the stairs. Maybe he was pushed. Maybe he got scared by a ghost and, in a moment of panic, fell. We simply don’t have enough information to truly ascertain why this man fell down the stairs—and yet, our System 1 tries to jump to a conclusion anyway.

These are impressions of causality, which exist within us from a very early age. We can imagine and visualize a series of events, as we feel that they should unfold, even if they don’t actually pan out that way. We make these type of judgment calls on a daily basis!

The issue is that we are prone to apply this type of causal thinking to some events that require more thorough reasoning or statistical analysis. Failure to fully unpack your intuition is behavior that can lead to unhealthy decisions like bias, prejudice and a myriad of other problematic habits.

System 1 will often ‘jump to conclusions’, following the patterns it knows, and the pattern of least resistance, even if those patterns are wrong or harmful.

Kahneman discusses System 1’s process further:

“System 1 bets on an answer, and the bets are guided by experience. The rules of the betting are intelligent: recent events and the current context have the most weight in determining an interpretation. When no recent event comes to mind, more distant memories govern.“

These types of judgments can also lead to something called the halo effect or as Kahneman describes it, “exaggerated emotional coherence.”

Exaggerated emotional coherence is a cognitive bias in which we make inferences about people and things based on the information we have at hand.

For example, let’s say you’ve had many negative interactions with your coworker, Chuck. As a result, you’ve labeled him as an arrogant, untrustworthy, Grade A asshole. One day, $300 goes missing out of the cash register at your workplace. Naturally, you automatically assume it was Chuck—based off of your previous experience, it would be easy to add ‘thief’ to the list of his negative traits. However, without any proof, your judgment is based solely on emotional bias.

This “jumping to conclusions” for System 1 does not necessarily ail well for the brain as System 2 is generally happy to adopt its counterpart’s suggestions, meaning you may just have to work harder to activate the more analytical System 2.

Leggo my Ego

If we take the premise that System 2 is lazy, and likes to do the least amount of work possible, and run with that concept, we can begin to describe and understand the mental processes that lead to roadblocks like burnout, anxiety, and lack of motivation.

The idea is that our mind is much more confident in making decisions when it only has one side of the argument. Not having the full story makes it easier for us to fit the information we have into a pattern that reflects our normal frameworks.

Once more information comes into the picture that might force us to reassess our assumptions. We need to start putting our System 2 to work—but as we already know, our System 2 is the “lazy” side of our brain.

System 2 also has a fragile ego and does not like to be challenged by things it does not understand or finds difficult to analyze. No matter how unreliable or unlikely the ‘stories’ created by System 1, System 2’s inherent reaction is to believe them. What a strong, trusting relationship!

However, the danger in this relationship is what Kahneman defines as “ego depletion.” When our mind finally does turn things over to System 2, there is a cost to pay. As Kahneman describes:

“The evidence is persuasive: activities that impose high demands on System 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant. Unlike cognitive load, ego depletion is at least in part a loss of motivation. After exerting self-control in one task, you do not feel like making an effort in another, although you could do it if you really had to.”  

He then goes on to give a concrete example of ego depletion:

“Participants who are instructed to stifle their emotional reaction to an emotionally charged film will later perform poorly on a test of physical stamina—how long they can maintain a strong grip on a dynamometer in spite of increasing discomfort. The emotional effort in the first phase of the experiment reduces the ability to withstand the pain of sustained muscle contraction, and ego-depleted people, therefore, succumb more quickly to the urge to quit.”

Like many things in his book, Kahneman does not really go into detail about how we can fix or avoid ego depletion. After all, he is simply observing the phenomena of our mental processes, not necessarily offering solutions to them. And in fact, for most of these things, there probably aren’t any quick, practical solutions.

Many of our mental patterns and actions have been hardwired into the human consciousness over millennia, and continue to develop and be affected by our environments and society.  

Kahneman’s findings seem to indicate that continuously exposing ourselves to stressful or demanding situations creates a cumulative effect whereby we are less able to deal with each subsequent event.  

That means that incessantly challenging yourself, without giving yourself time to breathe, is counterproductive, because each subsequent decision will be increasingly determined by System 1 thinking. You can therefore safely assume that the tough decisions that you make at the end of a long, stressful day will have riskier consequences than those made at the beginning of your day.

Perhaps it implies that we need to spread out our big, comprehensive decisions and problems, to give our mind and body the time to rebuild the energy it needs to make responsible and thoughtful choices.  

2 Fast 2 Furious

Mood plays a huge role in our cognitive decision-making, as evidenced by Kahneman:  

“...unhappy subjects were completely incapable of performing the intuitive task accurately; their guesses were no better than random. Mood evidently affects the operation of System 1: when we are uncomfortable and unhappy, we lose touch with our intuition. These findings add to the growing evidence that good mood, intuition, creativity, gullibility, and increased reliance on System 1 form a cluster. At the other pole, sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytic approach, and increased effort also go together. A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.”

Luckily, our brain is an eternal optimist. Unluckily, that can sometimes land us in hot water.  

Kahneman outlines one of the most pervasive biases of our brain, which he calls “pervasive optimistic bias”: The plus side is that an optimistic temperament encourages persistence in the face of obstacles. However, we put more weight into the benefits of a decision than we do into the risks of a situation. This can lead us to make plans that are extremely risky.

A classic example of the pervasive optimistic bias manifests itself when we take on financially demanding topics: like, “It’s tax season and I know I’ll probably owe anywhere between $10,000 and $15,000 but, I’m just gonna go ahead and assume my accountant will surprise me and I’ll actually only owe $5,000. Sweet!” We like to convince ourselves of the most optimistic outcome, rather than spending time investigating the reality, or risks of a situation.

We are more willing to follow our intuitions and to be creative when we are happy, and yet that can lead us to be less critical about the costs and benefits of our decisions. On top of that, our happiness is relative and evolves over time.  

Kahneman attempts to create a clear distinction between our “remembering selves” and our “experiencing selves” in terms of happiness. That is to say: We place our nostalgic, happy memories on a pedestal, while sometimes ignoring or taking for granted the happy moments we experience on a day-to-day basis. 

It seems that the ideal situation is to embrace the present and to make a conscious effort to activate our System 2 thinking, even when we feel so pumped up and stoked that we just want to go with our gut instinct.

Kahneman’s conception of happiness is further described in Jim Holt’s New York Times Book Review:

“As with colonoscopies, so too with life. It is the remembering self that calls the shots, not the experiencing self. Kahneman cites research showing, for example, that a college student’s decision whether or not to repeat a spring-break vacation is determined by the peak-end rule applied to the previous vacation, not by how fun (or miserable) it actually was moment by moment. The remembering self exercises a sort of “tyranny” over the voiceless experiencing self. ‘Odd as it may seem,’ Kahneman writes, ‘I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.’”

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Most of the problems in our thinking processes can be defined as things that we are used to experiencing being replaced by new things that we aren’t used to experiencing.  

Our System 1 is a traditionalist—it knows how to recognize patterns, and it conforms to them without having the analytical judgment to be like, “hey, why is there an extra cat in my house right now?”  

On the other hand, System 2 is lazy and is more than willing to just run with whatever information it gleans from System 1. It takes a lot of mental practice and work to be able to activate System 2 more frequently, but that’s exactly what we need to do if we want to stop making boneheaded mistakes all the time.

The Brain, being an eternal optimist, can also be quite problematic when you consider the idea of WYSIATI—or, “What you see is all there is”. This feeds back into the idea of System 2 inherently wanting to trust System 1.

We make decisions and develop perspectives based on the information that is in front of us, without considering the myriad possibilities that might exist outside of our perception. This can lead to us making a wide variety of perception or computing errors, which are summarized at length in this article from Medium.

We need to create an environment for ourselves that inspires our System 2 to make responsible and positive contributions to our intuitive thinking—that means, ultimately, trying to stay happy in the present and not putting too much pressure on ourselves to solve endless strings of difficult problems.

The brain is a curious machine, and we’re stuck with it, for better or for worse. Humans are creatures of habit, as evidenced by the power of System 1 thinking in our everyday decisions—we just have to make sure that neither system rules over everything that we do.