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Fast and Slow Thinking – Part 1

An excellent book on cognitive illusions and biases is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011).  On the surface the book is about economics and the economic theory that Kahneman, along with Amos Tversky, created—Prospect Theory.  Yet there is much more in the book than that— primarily the application of a particular psychology of thinking.  And this particular psychology of thinking explains why we humans find it difficult to think statistically and why we over-rely on our associative meanings, intuitions, and are so susceptible to numerous cognitive illusions and biases.


Kahneman begins the book by distinguishing two modes of thinking which he designates as system 1 and system 2 :

System 1 —thinking automatically and quickly with little effort.  It is not under voluntary control.  It’s your first thoughts.  It’s you at your primary level of experience.

System 2 —thinking requires conscious attention, is effortful, and is associated with focus, concentration, choice, agency (responsibility).  It is your second thoughts.  It’s you at your meta level of experience. 


In terms of Executive Thinking and getting your own Cognitive Make-Over, in system-1 you are not actually “thinking,” you are reacting according to your programs.  You are on automatic.  

It is only when you engage system-2 that you are actually thinking.  I have previously diagramed this as a “thinking” continuum which separates these two dimensions— distinguishing when you are not thinking and when you truly are thinking.


Now fast thinking is your glory and your agony.  It offers so much— a way to simplify the world, create coherent stories that raise confidence, detect patterns and get you to naively trust your intuitions.  It’s easy, it’s comfortable, it feels good.  No wonder fast thinking is very seductive and is also the source of flawed understandings, inadequate decisions, and misunderstandings.  

Here is a warning—with its biases, it is filled with systemic errors.  So beware of your first thoughts!  Those fast thoughts coming into your mind does not indicate that you are actually thinking— you are mainly reacting from whatever belief programs, understanding programs, etc. that you have received.


It’s seductive.  You, like me, are easily seduced by the fast thinking of system … After all, with it you experience a world that is more tidy, simple, predictable, and coherent than it really is.  This leads you to feeling over-confident regarding whatever you are used to thinking (what we call your comfort zone).  This explains why some people are so resistant to change— they want to live in a tidy little world that demands little mental effort.  “System-1 understands sentences by trying to make them true…” (122).  Beware!  What you have thought are products of a younger self with less experience than you have now and may be thoughts that have outlived their usefulness.


The slow thinking of system-2 is very different.  In this kind of thinking you proceed through a sequence of steps very deliberately and that requires the effort of attention.  However, as Kahnaman constantly warns, we have a limited budget of attention so expending mental effort in thinking is costly.  That’s why it is easier to not-think.  He notes that “a coherent train of thinking requires discipline” (p. 40).  Yet system-2 is capable of a more systematic and careful approach and is the basis of science, intelligence, discovery, mindfulness, and wisdom.  System-2 can manage the systemic errors of system-1 so that you do not fall victim to the built-in biases.  Or, as we say in Neuro-Semantics, you can best manage and govern your primary levels via your meta-levels.  That’s where you set your understanding and belief frames.


Your system-1 fast thinking sets you up to be gullible and biased; to believe as you are naturally prone to construct the best story possible, about what happens to you.  This is the basis of the narrative bias that we all suffer from— if you can create a coherent story about something, that will suffice to convince you.  It is not truth or accuracy that convinces us— it is coherence and a good story.  That should gives us all pause—given the stories that the likes of the  media are constantly creating for us…


For this reason system-1 tends to just ignore or eliminate random events which do not lend themselves to explanation.  They do not fit a tidy predictable world.  That’s why the presence of luck and probability are difficult concepts for us to fully understand and incorporate into our thinking and reasoning about things.  It makes statistical thinking difficult.


In terms of doubting, that’s system-2’s priority.  “System-1 is not prone to doubt.  It suppresses ambiguity and spontaneously constructs stories that are as coherent as possible.” (114).  It is system-2 that’s in charge of doubting and un-believing (81).   And “sustaining doubt is harder work than sliding into certainty.” (114).  Yet doubting and questioning lies at the essence of thinking.  It is the doubting questions of the Meta-Model that enables you to be more precise in your communications.  It is the doubting-questions that gives you a chance to have a second thought before you jump into things, merely reacting.  It is the ability to doubtfully-question that makes you a great critical thinker so that you can activate the executive functions in your brain.


Fast or slow thinking— we need them both.  We need them for different reasons and purposes.  Yet without awareness of this distinction— without a meta-awareness (a meta-state) about this, you don’t even have a choice.  And choice is one of your highest executive functions.


Written by Dr L. Michael Hall

Edited by Jay Hedley 


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