Thinking Fast, Slow and Not at All

Reading Daniel Kahneman’s fantastic new book, Thinking Fast and Slow, on the eve of a presidential election can only lead to despair. Yet his careful experiments—designed to reveal how our monkey brains have evolved to make decisions—go a long way toward explaining the effectiveness of political propaganda designed to exploit our inherent mental laziness.

Kahneman’s Nobel Prize-winning research ranges across a lifetime of psychological experiments, all of which point to the inescapable conclusion that we have two systems of thought that are at best loosely connected. Bridging that gap is the key to keeping democracy from destroying itself. Let me explain.

The first bit of mental machinery, which Kahneman blandly calls System One, works 24/7 to keep us out of trouble, while alerting us to fleeting opportunities. Appropriate for a species that is both predator and prey, System One lives in a world of snap judgments, extensible metaphors, ill-informed biases, and loosely constructed rules of thumb. We sometimes call this decision making apparatus intuition. Man’s intuition is sophisticated enough that it has helped us thrive across a variety of ever changing environments.

Despite its utility, System One is often wrong, especially if numbers are involved. For a trivial example, answer quickly: If the sum of the cost of a ball and bat is $1.10 and the bat cost a dollar more than the ball, what does the ball cost? Your System One answer (most likely wrong) is good enough to avoid mistaking a hungry lion for a tasty chicken. But it’s not good enough to build an airplane or design an effective income tax code. (The answer is a nickel, not a dime.)

System Two is associated with enumeration, computation, objective analysis, and complex chains of logic. It is our rational brain. Kahneman’s work shows that even scientists like himself use System Two very sparingly, calling on it only when System One asks for help. In addition, in order to function at the highest levels, System Two requires training, discipline, concentration, skeptical and impartial evaluation of purported facts, and the ruthless elimination of contradictions.

We are all born with a System Two, but obviously, some people use it more readily than others. For example, it’s not surprising for numerous studies to show that most people are spectacularly wrong in their estimates of numerical quantities—how many illegal aliens are there in the country, or what percent of the federal budget goes to Social Security and Medicare? What is surprising is that when these same people are given the correct facts, they remain highly resistant to modifying their beliefs. Apparently, most people do not rely on System Two to develop belief systems. Rather, they use System One and then selectively gather facts to support their conclusions, rejecting data and glossing over logic that doesn’t fit preconceived notions.

It has taken centuries to create a culture in which exceptionally skilled practitioners of System Two can deliver progress by challenging the status quo without being burned at the stake. It took further centuries to harness the results of System Two thinking to build a complex technological society that delivers unprecedented material benefits to populations so large that millions would perish if advanced technologies that are commonplace today, and magic to most people, were to disappear. We can thank markets for the fact that they don’t.

However, when it comes to electing increasingly all-powerful political leaders whose policies can unravel entire industries at a whim, it’s all System One all the time. Our political discourse has no room for System Two thinking. In fact, the opposite is true. Every ounce of campaign energy and the lion’s share of media attention are devoted to manipulating our snap judgments, extensible metaphors, ill-informed biases, and loosely constructed rules of thumb.

Yes, both sides call on experts to back up their claims—which are invariably disputed by the other side’s experts. To resolve the conflict, each side appeals to our System One—never asked to do the math, but to decide which experts to believe. Rarely do politicians ask voters to use their own System Two to truly understand and evaluate an issue. All of this makes sense, given the reluctance of most people to expend the mental energy, and the infrequency with which people change their minds once System One has made the call.

This does not bode well for unlimited democracy, as it has become increasingly easy for politicians to assemble majorities by promising voters that they can eat their cake and have it, too. Who cares if the numbers don’t add up as long as the majority can demand that someone else provide the cake? No matter how many times frugal killjoys have sounded the alarm, we’ve never run out before, have we? Is it any surprise that politicians want us to focus on the here and now and stop worrying about the long run?

After all, the experts agree that in the long run we are all dead