Kahneman's Mind-Clarifying Strangers: System 1 & System 2


Feeling is a form of thinking. Both are ways we process information, but feeling is faster. That’s the crux of Daniel Kahneman’s mind-clarifying work. It won a psychologist an economics Nobel. And strange labels helped.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman wrestles with flawed ideas about decision making. “Social scientists in the 1970s broadly accepted two ideas about human nature. First, people are generally rational…Second, emotions…explain most of the occasions on which people depart from rationality.” But research has “traced [systematic] errors to the… machinery of cognition…rather than corruption…by emotion.”

Kahneman sidesteps centuries of confusion (and Freudian fictions) by using new—hence undisputed—terms: the brilliantly bland “System 1” and “System 2.” These strangers help by forcing you to ask about their attributes. System 1 “is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach, System 2 “the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates.” Kahneman says “System 1 is...more influential…guiding…[and]...steering System 2 to a very large extent.”

The measurable features of System 1 and System 2 cut across prior categories. Intuitive information-processing has typically been considered irrational, but System 1’s fast thinking is often logical and useful (“intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition”). Conversely, despite being conscious and deliberate System 2 can produce poor (sometimes irrational) results.

Kahneman launched behavioral economics by studying these systematic “cognitive biases.” He was astonished that economists modeled people as “rational, selfish, with tastes that don’t change,” when to psychologists “it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable.”  

Kahneman’s potentially paradigm-tipping work has limitations. It is light on evolution, e.g focusing on numerically framed decisions discounts that we didn't evolve to think numerically. Math is a second nature skill, requiring much System 2 training (before becoming a System 1 skill). Also, we evolved to often act without System 2 consciously deciding (habits are triggered by System 1). Indeed cognitive biases might be bad System 1 habits rather than built in brain bugs. And cognitive biases have two sources of error, the observed behavior and what economists suppose is “rational.”

Those limitations aside, whenever pondering cognition, bear in mind the distinct traits of System 1 and System 2. Mapping mental skills (and the mini-skills they consist of) onto those labels can clarify your thinking about thinking.

 

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

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

What should schools teach? Now is the moment to ask.

The future of learning will be different, and now is the time to lay the groundwork.

What should schools teach? Now is the moment to ask. | Caroline ...
Future of Learning
  • The coronavirus pandemic has left many at an interesting crossroads in terms of mapping out the future of their respective fields and industries. For schools, that may mean a total shift not only in how educators teach, but what they teach.
  • One important strategy moving forward, thought leader Caroline Hill says, is to push back against the idea that getting ahead is more important than getting along. "The opportunity that education has in this moment to really push students and think about what is the right way to live, how do we do it and how do we do it in a way that doesn't hurt or rob the dignity of other people?"
  • Hill also argues that now is the time for bigger swings and for removing the barriers that limit education. The online space is boundary free and provides educators with new opportunities to connect with students around the world.

Keep reading Show less

Here are 3 things white people can do right now to help #BLM

Remaining silent is being complicit.

Demonstrators pause for a moment of silence during a protest over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police officer, in McCarren Park in the borough of Brooklyn on June 3, 2020 in New York City.

Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Protests around the world are demanding an end to police discrimination and violence against black citizens in America.
  • Author and activist Dax-Devlon Ross offers advice on how white people can help during this moment.
  • Ross's suggestions include thinking and voting locally, supporting black-owned businesses, and practicing self-reflection.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…