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Think Slow to Think Fast – Part 2

As we have seen in part 1 of this article, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) is an excellent source for understanding the basic cognitive biases. Kahneman in that book also introduces the idea of two modes of thinking. Both of them are necessary, yet each one has its own specialities.

In System-1 fast thinking, you operate automatically and quickly, with little effort. Your thinking is highly sensitive to impressions, feelings, and inclinations (intuitions). You create coherent patterns of ideas from associative memory, quickly infer causes and intentions, neglect ambiguity, suppress doubt, and you are biased to believe, exaggerate emotional consistency, deal only with what easily comes to mind, substitute easier questions for difficult ones, etc. (p. 105).


As such, while System-1 is easy and effortless, it sets you up for mind-reading and cause-effect mistakes, over-reacting, cognitive biases and cognitive distortions.  Yet once you have expended effort and something thought-through and come to some conclusions (beliefs, decisions, identity, permissions, etc.), system-1 carries out those programs quickly and automatically.  It is run by the lower levels of the brain.

In System-2 slow thinking you operate consciously and slowly and to do so requires effort.  That’s why to be thoughtful induces a cognitive strain on your mental system requiring attention, focus, concentration, choosing, etc.  You establish beliefs and understandings, make choices, take over when things get difficult, with it you can monitor system-1, doubt, un-believe, can reset expectations of system-1, and surge with conscious attention to deal with surprises.


As the executive functions of the brain, System-2 gives you the ability to do executive thinking.  It is here that you attend, monitor, notice, choose, decide, etc. You become your own personal executive, making the executive decisions about what you believe, who you are, where you’re going, the values you live, etc.  This is effortful.  It requires discipline and via cognitive strain and effort, you build up programs that best suit you— which are most ecological for you.


Now because your brain has both lower and higher functions, and because you need to keep translating between the dynamic, fluid representations of the lower brain functions and the more static, permanent higher brain functions (Korzybski, 1933)— you need both systems.  You need both systems in good communication with each other.  In fact, the meta-capacity of translating up and down is precisely what enables you to keep learning and updating your programs thereby making your responses most appropriate and effective.


Now to do that, you also need to go slow— do your mental work of thinking things through, thinking about your thinking (meta-cognition)— so that you can go fast. Going fast at the primary level in an effective and accurate way is what the experts do and what we want to model.  They have programmed themselves slowly over the years in a given domain (chest masters, musicians, physicists, mathematicians, athletes, etc.)— the ten-year rule of Anders Erickkson— so that now they can very quickly (intuitively) function in their domain with ease, comfort, and precision.


Today the experts go fast because they have gone slow. This is also true for you!  Think about something that today you can do very rapidly with accuracy and precision. Think learning to type on a keyboard, riding a bike, playing tennis or chess, etc. Whatever that is, you did not begin that way.  Nor did it develop quickly.  You engaged in thoroughly studying, practising, and adjusting with feedback until today you can go fast.


How does human expertise in any area develop? First comes the slow deliberate thinking by which you come to understand something. You read slowly and extensively, forget speed reading.  Get James W. Sire’s book, How to Read Slowly (1978). Talk out what you learn with friends.  Try to teach it to someone.  Do something about what you have read.  Practice.  Get feedback.  Then if you keep it up for ten years, you can reach a level of quick response in a complex context.  How is your integration of both fast and slow thinking?  For many, this is one area wherein we need a cognitive make-over.


Written by Dr L.Michael Hall

Edited by Jay Hedley


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