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Culture & Religion

Kahneman’s Mind Clarifying Work: How Mysterious Coinages Can Help

Feeling is a form of thinking. Both are ways of processing data, one is just faster. Daniel Kahneman’s mysterious coinages (System 1 and System 2) show how new language can help sidestep centuries of confusion. 

Feeling is a form of thinking. Both are ways of processing data, one is just faster. Establishing those re-conceptions required a powerful scientific technique that needs no instruments or mathematics, just new language. What Daniel Kahneman calls “theory induced blindness” can be cured by artful use of mysterious new coinage.

1. Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, identifies key flaws in conventional thinking about how we think. “Social scientists in the 1970s broadly accepted two ideas about human nature. First, “people are generally rational.” Second, emotions mostly explain why “people depart from rationality.”

2. Kahneman’s Nobel Prize-winning work “traced…[systematic] errors to the design of the machinery of cognition” not “corruption…by emotion.” Grasping this requires new “richer and more precise language.” But novelty alone doesn’t always cut it for a confusion-ectomy, sometimes meaninglessness creates needed curiosity.

3. Kahneman neatly sidesteps centuries of confusion by using new, and hence undisputed terms: the brilliantly bland labels “System 1” and “System 2.” Unlike the novel but readily decipherable phrase “theory induced blindness,” the meaning and attributes of System 1 and 2 have to be learned. Mystery is key to their utility.

4. The empirical attributes of System 1 and System 2 cut across unhelpful distinctions embedded in prior terms. Intuitive information-processing was typically deemed irrational, but System 1’s fast thinking is often useful and logical. And though we’d like to think we reason well when we do it consciously, our System 2 often produces bad “irrational” results. These counter-conventional observations lead to what Kahneman labels “cognitive biases” (though that label itself has issues).

5. Language-laundering risks bringing forward old confusing baggage, but new neutral language can enable what Daniel Dennett calls “jootsing,” = “jumping out of the system.”

6. Unencumbered coinages, like jootsing, can enable jootsing. To terminate terminological wrangling and deconfuse a field, sometimes requires clear-cutting category-defining terms, restarting with a blank semantic slate, and rebuilding clusters of features around new, neutral labels.

A version of “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” applies: Nothing in human behavior makes sense except in the light of Systems 1 and 2. We should map all human data processing onto Kahneman‘s clarifying labels.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.


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