How To Avoid Bad Thinking, Part 1

Fast and Wrong?

thinking fast slow chessNobody likes being wrong. It’s embarrassing, it gives rise to regret, and sometimes it even places us in harm’s way. In my own experience, I’ve learned that I can avoid mistakes by slowing down and thinking things through before making a move. Sometimes I spend a good fifteen minutes analyzing my options. Unfortunately, when I do this in a chess match with my son, he starts expressing his frustration in various forms of body language. This slow-approach also causes problems in most sports, especially those involving high-speed projectiles.

But in many contexts, slowing down and concentrating on the problem at hand increases our success dramatically. This truth came into crystal-clear focus when I read Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In it, Kahneman (winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics) shares the fruit of his decades-long research program on the cognitive machinery of our minds, revealing insights into the natural flaws in kahneman thinking fast slowour thinking.

This post launches a series based on Kahneman’s book. On October 23, I will conclude the series by giving away a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow to one lucky subscriber to my blog. So, sign up with your email (on your right at the top of this post) before the 23rd to be eligible. I’ll select someone at random and have the book delivered to your home with the magic of 2-day shipping. (Or the audio book, if you prefer.)

The Two Systems

anger "system 1" thinking intuitiveKahneman talks about the mind possessing two “systems,” or modes of thought: one fast, one slow. Imagine a recent conflict you’ve had with a friend or spouse. Your recognition that they are angry by the shape of their mouth and eyebrows is instantaneous. This is “System 1” at work—the fast, intuitive mode of thought. Now try this problem: 17 x 24. When you buckle down and concentrate on this, it is “System 2” at work—the slow, analytical mode. System 1 gives us instant cues about our surroundings and makes quick judgments when we simply don’t have time for analysis, as when a baseball is hurling toward you at 80 mph. System 2 allows us to tackle harder, more complicated problems that require careful attention to details that are not obvious.

bat ball problem thinkingThe rest of the book describes the manifold ways in which System 1 gets fooled. System 1 simply tries to do too much, and lazy System 2 won’t pitch in without quite a bit of cajoling. Here’s an example—go head and try it.

A bat and ball cost $1.10
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

If you’re like most people, your first thought was that the ball is 10 cents. Kahneman writes that this easy puzzle “evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong.” (44)* Check the math, maybe using pencil and paper. The correct answer is that the ball is 5 cents and the bat is $1.05. But System 1 doesn’t have the chops for this kind of work, and your System 2 was probably napping. When this puzzle was used in an experiment, 50% of students from Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the wrong answer!

But even System 2 has its limitations. Watch the video below.

How did you do? You may have correctly counted the passes, but did you notice the gorilla? About half of all viewers don’t notice the gorilla, says Kahneman.(24) This demonstrates that System 2 has limited resources. When you “pay attention” to one task that requires high-level concentration, you have less attention to spend on other things. And even intuitive System 1 seems unable to pick up the slack.

Better Thinking

hammer thinking The helpful take-away from Kahneman’s research is this: you’re far more prone to errors in reasoning than you realize. Most of us are like bad carpenters. We use our hammer on everything, simply because it is the tool we are currently holding. Only when we realize that we’ve gone wrong do we stop and look in our tool-belt for something more appropriate. This applies to politics, faith, morality—just about anything. System 1 is the easy default, but it just can’t handle serious thinking. And now that you know this, you’ve got to kick System 2 in the butt and put it to work.

*I will refer to Kahneman’s book (I believe there is only the one 2011 edition) with page numbers in parentheses.

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